In the seventeenth stanza of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray, what possible blessing does the poet mention the lack of fame and opportunity may have afforded the humble?

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thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In the seventeenth stanza of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", by Thomas Gray, the lack of fame and opportunity for the poor is seen as both advantage and disadvantage from different perspectives. Although the humble do not have the scope for the great and glorious deeds that are performed by the powerful and wealthy, neither do they have the opportunity for great sins. Thus their situation:

...  nor circumscribed alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes
          confin'd;

This echoes a common Christian notion that "blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." Although the limited scope for great deeds may seem a misfortune from a worldly point of view, in fact, worldly fame and fortune are not important after death, and thus in the setting of a graveyard, God's giving the humble limited opportunities for committing evil is actually a blessing.

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jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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In stanza 17 of the poem, Gray writes that greatness was denied to the people buried in the churchyard where he stands. While their humble background prevented them from reaching greatness, it also limited the wrongs they could commit. Gray writes of the possibility of the people buried in the churchyard reaching greatness: "Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone/ Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined." In other words, the common people buried in the churchyard could not reach greatness, but the blessing of their lack of fame was that it also prevented them from committing wrongs. Their humble origins meant that they were "Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne, /And shut the gates of mercy on mankind." In other words, the people buried in the churchyard did not kill people en route to gaining a throne, and they did not practice a kind of mercilessness that is necessary to gaining power. Therefore, they had the blessing of remaining virtuous, given their humble lives. 

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