Can you give an appreciation of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Perhaps the most salient motif of Thomas is the idea of the Latin phrase that Thomas Gray evokes, momento mori; that is, "Remember that you must die."  As Gray ponders this sentiment, observing the modest graves in the "neglected spot," he concludes that in death there is no difference between the renowned and the common people.

In fact, as the poet continues his contemplation of the unknown people in this churchyard, he reflects that

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid/Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;/Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed/or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page/Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;/Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,/And froze the genial current of the soul.

In other words, beneath these graves there may lie souls far nobler than those of the renowed graves.  Only lack of wealth and opportunity prevented their development.  And, yet, Gray continues, they may be all the nobler for not having reached fame since they lived purer and more honest lives:

Far from the madding crowd's* ignoble strife/Their sober wishes never learned to stray;/Along the cool, sequestered vale of life/They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

In their nobility of soul, then, the common people buried in the graveyard are the equal, if not superior to others. This motif is an inspiring one that the reader can appreciate. At any rate, death, the great equalizer, has come to all.

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*(note)"Far from the madding crowd" is the title of a Thomas Hardy novel. 

 

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There is much in this rather lengthy work that can be appreciated.  The structure of heroic quatrains help to emphasize the purpose of the poem as a musing over the existence of life and the reality of death.  The opening lines bring to mind the image of something coming to its natural end.  The idea of the random visitor who is able to ponder about the nature of mortality and the lives led by others upon seeing a graveyard is a powerful one.  It is the most natural experience when coming to any such location and Gray identifies on what this resembles in terms of asking questions, postulating about the nature of existence, and wondering about how mortality and life are elements where there are only questions and, few, if any, answers.  The stillness, the end of the day, help to bring to light that when thinking about such issues, all other forms of thought cease as there are no more relevant topics than the one of life and death.  Gray captures the essence of this transferal on the part of the speaker to the lives once led as the graveyard is being studied.  The images of the "busy housewife" or "no children run to lisp their sire's return" help to bring to light the fact that when examining the death of others, human beings have a tendency to transfer their own experiences or hypothesize how their lives might have been.  This helps to bring a universal quality to the poem, for, again, it is quite natural to engage in this type of wonderment as there will be little to prove it being wrong.  Amidst this rumination, there are lines such as "The paths of glory lead but to the grave," helping to cement the idea that what is wondered about from a distance is an end that awaits all human beings, and thus reaffirming the meaning of such a thought process.

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ignorantas | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

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Graveyard poetry is vain, empty, and useless (I meam what I say). If we all know what GOD says about death, I am sure this cacophony will lose its power in all human languages. There is no respect of person before GOD. He loves us all regardless of who or what we are. The problem with Man is Man himself: he believes and trusts in his perfect weakness and ignorance. And, above all, he thinks that he is "good" enough to judge his neighbour. Sorry it took Gray a whole poem to realise how miopic Man's sense of judgement is.   Fretzyours is certainly right to laugh at all this sh*t (...as if I knew his mind). But you all sound good...by the way, can somebody help me with some toilet tissue, please?

NB: Please do not question me about my source of inspiration because I am ignorant of it. There is no evidence in TRUTH.

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