Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" was a groundbreaking poem for its time (1751), because it cast the lives of simple, obscure country people in positive terms, shining a light on a group that was often overlooked.
The speaker wanders through a country graveyard by a church as dusk falls. He ponders the graves and asserts that the poor, though denied opportunity, have the same talents as people who are wealthier and more privileged, saying,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest....
He speaks of the obscure people buried in the churchyard as lovely flowers whose beauty and goodness are unknown:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
The speaker also asserts that the obscure poor are people of cheerfulness who go about their humble work without complaint:
How jocund [joyfully] did they drive their team afield!
How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
He tells the ambitious classes not to laugh at these simpler people nor cast a "disdainful smile" on the poor.
The speaker is so moved by the way these unknown people have lived their lives that he wants to be remembered when he dies as one of them,
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
The poem's theme is that the poor are equally as worthy of praise as the great and mighty. Death makes us all equal, so the speaker ponders what really matters in life and decides that it is goodness and integrity rather than glory and fame.
Most of the population of England in 1751 was poor and rural, but such individuals were usually not featured in poetry. If they were, it was as cardboard "shepherds," comic rustics, or "clowns" who were the butt of jokes. Gray was ahead of his time in treating the poor with dignity and valuing their contributions to society.
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