illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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How does "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" contrast the graves of the poor and rich?

Quick answer:

The graves of the rich and poor are contrasted in the poem by reference to ornamentation. Whereas the rich have memorials on their graves and urns decorated with events from their lives, the graves of the poor are entirely unadorned. For the speaker, none of this matters, as, whatever one's condition in life, all eventually die.

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In "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," Gray aims to give a voice to the common folk, those "mute, inglorious" people who lived lives of rustic simplicity without making their mark on the pages of history.

He muses on what might have been, what achievements they could've made had they been given the opportunities. From this, we can gather just how unequal eighteenth-century English society really was, how it concentrated wealth, power, and opportunity in the hands of a privileged elite, leaving the vast majority to lead lives of poverty and endless grind.

Even in death, the vast gulf between rich and poor, the haves and the have nots, still exists, as can be seen in their very different gravestones and other funerary monuments.

Whereas the rich have elaborate memorials erected on their graves, those of the poor are completely unadorned. And whereas the rich can afford to buy expensive urns decorated with events from their memorable lives, no one remembers what the poor country folk did during their time on earth.

In the end, such distinctions are worthless. Rich or poor, famous or completely unknown, we will all die one day. And it's pointless for the rich to brag about their achievements and blame the poor for not having ornaments on their graves.

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