How does the form and structure of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" shape meaning? (I'm trying to access the form and structure AO2)

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Known for his juxtaposition of established forms and novel sentiments, the energetic poet Thomas Gray combines with great skill the Neoclassical style of his own century with the Romantic ideals of the next in his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." 

Like the great poets of his age, Thomas Gray has composed his elegiac poem in Iambic Pentameter (4 unstressed/stressed syllables one after another) with a rhyme scheme of abab. That is, the first line rhymes with the third line, the second line rhymes with the last line of each stanza. This rhyme pattern is classic, and it also follows the pattern of speech in English.

Stanzas of four lines of Iambic Pentameter are known as "heroic quatrains." And, it is in writing these formal heroic quatrains that Gray has juxtaposed Neoclassical form with Romantic sentiment as he challenges the classical idea of an elegy being only for men of greatness:

Some village Hampden that, with dauntless breast,
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

Here in Stanza 15, with allusions to great men, Gray suggests that the common man, who simply by the misfortune of his social class may be unknown, yet in nature he may be as heroic and grand as Hampden, Milton, or Cromwell. While writing in the "graveyard tradition" of creating an atmosphere of pleasing melancholy for his philosophical musings, Gray, nevertheless, modifies this form as he "mutes" the more sensational images of owls, palls, hearses, and other such morose images.

In addition, Gray extends his lofty praise of the elegy to Nature, often praised by the Romantics. It is a nature which provides hope after death. "The Epitaph" which follows challenges, too, the classical elegy that is lofty in form and tone as Gray moves from the tightly written style of the formal to the free form of the Romantics, expressing beautifully his "humble birth" and "melancholy" that have been lifted by his friendship with Richard West. Now he lies in the repose of death in the "bosom of his Father and his God," his grief bridged by friendship and Nature. Thus, by challenging the form and structure of the classical elegy, Thomas Gray extends heroic grandeur to the farmer and the villager, who possess natures as noble as those of Milton and others; similarly, Gray uses the epitaph to combine the lofty form of the classical with the imagery and sublime thought of the Romantics as Nature provides its solace to "his frailties."

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