The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry Series)
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is by far Thomas Gray’s most popular poem and is probably still one of the most popular poems in the English language. It was an immediate success and required five printings in 1751—the year of its publication—alone. There have been more than two hundred English and American imitations and parodies, and the poem has been translated into at least eighteen languages, including Armenian, Czechoslovakian, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, and Icelandic.
The poem can best be understood in relation to two poetic traditions that were prevalent in the first half of the eighteenth century. The first of these is the elegiac tradition. An elegy is a sustained and formal poem setting forth the poet’s meditations on death or another solemn theme. The meditation is often occasioned by the death of a particular person, but may be simply a contemplation of death or the expression of a solemn mood. Gray wrote his elegy in what came to be called (after the publication and imitation of his poem) the “elegiac stanza,” or the iambic pentameter quatrain rhyming abab.
The second tradition is the “landscape” tradition, in which the poet embodies his metaphysical or philosophical musings in the countryside or in nature. A subdivision of landscape poetry, the “graveyard school,” tries to achieve an atmosphere of pleasing melancholy by contemplating death and...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry Series)
Gray achieves the dignified, grave, and stately tone of his poem through a number of poetic techniques. First, the heroic quatrain—four lines of iambic pentameter rhyming abab—sometimes called the “elegiac stanza,” combined with monosyllabic words and long vowels, produces exactly the effect of quiet melancholy which is characteristic of both the elegy and graveyard poetry: “The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea.” Onomatopoeia—the use of words that by their sound suggest their meanings—quietly sets the background in the country setting: The beetle wheels his “droning” flight; the owl is “moping”; the bells of the sheep are “drowsy tinklings.”
Alliteration, the repetition of identical consonant sounds, is used to link words that the poet wants the reader to associate closely: “No children run to lisp their sire’s return” (line 23). Although, strictly speaking, alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds, Gray associates the l sounds of children and lisp and the r sounds in children, run, their, sire, and return, and he connects the s of lisp with sires.
Another device Gray uses to heighten and emphasize emotional impact is parallel structure. Sometimes he will balance the first half of a line with the second half; in line 33, for example, “The boast of heraldry” balances the second half, “the pomp of pow’r.” In other stanzas, Gray repeats...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Country churchyard. Cemetery adjoining an unnamed rural or village church. There is no way of knowing which particular country churchyard Thomas Gray was looking at or thinking about when he composed this poem. It is known, however, that he spent most of his life quietly as a professor at Cambridge University in Cambridge, England. He traveled in the summer to Scotland and the Lake District in northwest England, and as a youth he traveled to Europe. A churchyard scene such as he describes in the poem would be familiar to most Europeans.
Place is significant in Gray’s elegy. The poem opens with a peaceful, evocative description of a country churchyard at close of day. The twilight scene is simple but unmistakable. The elm and yew trees shade the graves where the common people of the town have been laid for their final rest. The wealthy folk are buried in the walls and floors of the church; their graves have statuary or beautiful decorations.
The poet muses on the lives of the persons buried there. He pictures their lives as simple farmers and housewives. The chief poignancy of the poem lies in the poet’s suggestions that some of the people buried in the churchyard may not have fulfilled the potential of their lives because of their poverty and rural isolation. Despite any talent they may have possessed, their lives were very much tied to the place in which they lived. Though they were unlearned, they...
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When Thomas Gray was writing this poem, the world was going through a period of intellectual development that thinkers of the time dubbed the "Age of Enlightenment." The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that grew out of the great advances made by scientists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One key example which ended up having great influence on the Enlightenment was Sir Isaac Newton's theory of universal gravitation, which proposed laws that explained and predicted the behavior of matter in all circumstances everywhere. Newton published this theory in his book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687, and it marked a turning point in the history of science. At the same time, this idea of the power of rationalism was growing in the area of philosophy. Thinkers such as Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) took up the idea of rationalism, attempting to apply the methods of scientific inquiry to the field of philosophy; Descartes' famous statement "I think, therefore I am" represents his attempt to start with the one simple truth that he could be sure of about the world, which was that he himself existed. In political science, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) explored the interrelations of social interactions in such works as The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, and John Locke (1632-1704) explained human intelligence as being the sum of what is learned through experience, not the God-given right of a...
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"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is written in heroic quatrains. A quatrain is a four-line stanza. Heroic quatrains rhyme in an abab pattern and are written in iambic pentameter. An iamb is a poetic foot consisting of one unstressed and one stressed syllable, as in the phrase "the world." Pentameter simply means that there are five feet in each line. Consider, for instance, the first line of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard":
The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
When we scan the line, or identify its stresses, it appears as follows:
The Cur / few tolls / the knell / of part / ing day.
Try reading the line aloud: its regular, steady rhythm helps to creates a calm and quiet mood—one appropriate to the meditative nature of this poem.
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Compare and Contrast
1751: Benjamin Franklin, flying a kite in a thunderstorm with a key at the end of the string, discovered the fact that lightning behaves like electricity and flows through conductive material.
Today: Control of electricity is one of the fundamental principles of our society. Blackouts, when electricity becomes unavailable, create major disruptions.
1751: Whaling was an important part of the economy of the New England colonies, with more than sixty whaling ships trolling the water off the coast.
Today: Environmental organizations fight to protect the rights of endangered whale species, but the world has much less use for whale meat or for whale oil to light lamps.
1751: English theologian and evangelist John Wesley was travelling almost 5000 miles every year to spread the word about Christianity, founding the denomination known as Methodism.
Today: Methodism is recognized as one of the mainstream Protestant religions.
1751: Approximately one-fifth of the people in New England, which was to become America after the war for independence in 1776, were slaves.
1863: Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which made slavery illegal in the United States. It was not accepted in the South until after their defeat in the Civil War in 1865.
Today: Most of the world has laws against slavery, but there are...
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Topics for Further Study
Do you think the speaker of this poem is sentimentalizing the forgotten people in the country churchyard, or is he giving them the recognition they deserve? Would this poem have the same meaning if it were written in a churchyard in a busy city?
Visit a cemetery near you, pick the tombstone of a person that you do not know, and write a page about what that person might have been like, focusing on the social changes that person may have experienced. What does the length of that person's life tell you? What can you tell from where they are buried?
It could be argued that people in modern society are more likely to remember the accomplishments of poor people than they were in Gray's time? It is just as possible, though, that we are as preoccupied with the famous and wealthy as people in seventeenth-century England were with royalty. Explain what you think about this issue.
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J. Norton Publishers/Audio-Forum has produced an audiocassette entitled How Shelley Died; Elegy in a Country Churchyard: Two Lectures (1979) with Gilbert Highet.
Caedmon has produced an audiocassette set (of 4 disks) entitled Eighteenth Century Poets and Drama (1970).
Spoken Arts Corporation has produced an audiocassette set (of 6 disks) entitled Great English Literature of the 18th Century (1971).
Perspective Films has produced a videocassette entitled Elegy to Thomas Gray (1980).
Monterey Home Video has produced a video-cassette entitled The Poetry Hall of Fame: Volume IV (1994) from the BBC series "Anyone for Tennyson?"
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What Do I Read Next?
The most authoritative edition of Gray's poetry is the edition originally published by the Oxford Press in 1966, entitled The Complete Poems of Thomas Gray: English, Latin and Greek. H. W. Starr wrote the introduction and edited the book with J. R. Hendrickson.
John Dyer is a Welsh pastoral poet who wrote at the same time as Gray. His greatest works, including "Grongar Hill," considered one of the first romantic pastoral poems, are included in the collection Poems, 1761.
Samuel Johnson was the outstanding literary figure of Gray's time. Among his writings was the ten-volume Lives of the Poets, which includes a brief biography of Gray, as well as a number of poems that he wrote himself. He is best known today for the biography that James Boswell wrote about him, The Life of Samuel Johnson, considered one of the best biographies ever and an important source for readers who want to understand the British literary scene in the eighteenth century.
Gray wrote during the Age of Enlightenment, a period of intense intellectual activity throughout the world. One of the leading thinkers of the time was French Philosopher Rene Descartes, who is often credited with adding humanity to the age of ideas. His Discourse on Method and the Meditations is still considered one of the world's most important philosophical works.
Thomas Gray is often considered a poet ahead of his time, who predated the...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Arnold, Matthew, "Thomas Gray," in his Essays in Criticism, 2nd ser., The Macmillan Company, 1934, pp. 69-99.
Brady, Frank, "Structure and Meaning in Gray's Elegy," in Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, edited by Harold Bloom, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Ellis, Frank Hale, "Gray's Elegy: The Biographical Problem in Literary Criticism," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Gray's "Elegy," edited by Herbert W. Starr, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Empson, William, "Proletarian Literature," in English Pastoral Poetry, New York: New Directions, 1935, pp. 4-5.
Hutchings, W., "Syntax of Death: Instability in Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,'" in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXI, No. 4, Fall, 1984, pp. 496-514.
Johnson, Samuel, "Gray," in his Lives of the English Poets, Vol. II, 1781; reprinted by Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 453-64.
Krutch, Joseph Wood, "Introduction," in The Selected Letters of Thomas Gray by Thomas Gray, edited by Joseph Wood Krutch, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Young, Inc., 1952, pp. ix-xxxii.
Weaver, Carl J., "The Bicentenary of Gray's 'Elegy,'" in Colby Library Quarterly, Series III, No. 1, February, 1951, pp. 9-12.
Weinfield, Henry, The Poet Without a Name: Gray's "Elegy" and the Problem of...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Brady, Frank. “Structure and Meaning in Gray’s Elegy.” In From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, edited by Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. In his lucid and careful reading of Gray’s elegy, Brady stresses the appropriateness of the closing “epitaph.” (The book contains two other essays on the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”)
Brooks, Cleanth. “Gray’s Storied Urn.” In The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. In a celebrated and important close reading of the poem, Brooks argues that the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is rich in irony and implication. Essential reading for any interpreter of the work.
Lonsdale, Roger, ed. The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, Oliver Goldsmith. London: Longman, 1969. Lonsdale’s introduction to Gray’s elegy and his notes to the text are invaluable, especially on the difficulties of lines 93 to 96.
Sells, A. L. Lytton, assisted by Iris Lytton Sells. Thomas Gray: His Life and Works. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1980. This biography includes frequent references to Gray’s elegy and includes a lengthy discussion of the work. Sells believes that the epitaph refers to Richard...
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