Discuss the characteristics of the literature of sentiment and sensibility in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."

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Eighteenth-century literature of sentiment and sensibility was written to evoke feelings or emotions. Literary critic Ann Jessie van Sant distinguishes sentiment as describing feelings associated with the mind and sensibility as describing feelings associated with the body; other critics say it is difficult to separate the two. In any case, the literature of sentiment and sensibility is often characterized by a melancholy mood and a focus on the simple life and on suffering.

In "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," the theme is death and the poems sets the melancholy tone from the first stanza, where the setting is evening and the tolling of bell, "parting," and "darkness" evoke death:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
 
The poem emphasizes death as the great leveller, for "the paths of glory lead to the grave" as surely as do the lives of humble folk. The poem focuses on the lives of  the simple, ordinary people, and Gray tries to evoke our sympathy for them and the poignance of their lives of dignity in obscurity. Using van Rant's distinction, we can see the lines below evoking sentiment, or an emotion of sympathy, towards a person, who, like a flower, lives and dies in obscurity:
 
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
 
The world is full of people buried in country churchyards who might have had the aspirations and talents to do great things, but nevertheless lived simple 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.
 
The poem invites us into a mood of melancholy or bittersweetness as we contemplate these lives. 

 

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