Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry Series)
Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a meditation about death as the final estate of the human condition, regardless of wealth, position, or power. The first four stanzas present images of twilight settling over a solitary figure in a small country churchyard. The first line, “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,” expresses the inevitable presence of death in three words: tolls, knell, and parting. Gray’s use of the word “toll” recalls a line from John Donne’s “Meditation XVII”: “Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.” Stanza 4 concludes the opening picture and leaves no doubt about the subject of the meditation: “Each in his narrow cell forever laid,/ The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”
The next four stanzas continue the theme of death as the end of all individuals by listing the activities the dead used to do but do “no more.” The repetition of “no more” (line 20) and “For them no more” (line 21) emphasizes the fact that all human activity leads to the grave.
The poet has established a dramatic point of view: The reader sees the world through the eyes of a single figure who is humankind, who sees the truth and sees the destiny of all. Yet each of the “rude forefathers” represents humankind as well: Their fate is our own. Thus one has both the living, contemplating human destiny and death, and the dead, whose destiny is all too clear.
These two merge later in the poem, beginning in stanza 24, where, suddenly, the speaker imagines himself dead and buried, and the reader is invited to read his epitaph (line 115). In the face of inevitable doom, the speaker holds out the hope for immortality by making a friend of Heaven and by believing that, dead, he rests in “The bosom of his Father and his God” (line 128).