An elegy is a poem written to memorialize the dead. In this elegy, Gray shines a light on the lives the poor, obscure people buried in his country churchyard. He tells the reader not to make fun these poor souls, writing:
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure
Simple laborers who worked the fields lie buried by this quiet church, along with their wives and children. But although never known beyond a small circle of family and friends, their lives nevertheless possess dignity and value.
The rich, Gray argues, are no better than these poor people. How do we know that these simple folk didn't harbor someone with the talents of a Milton or, as the line below states, the ability to be great leaders?
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd
The poor instead lived steady, quiet lives that ought be admired for their simplicity:
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
It was unusual at the time this poem was published in 1751 to focus verses so completely on poor, ordinary, rural people and treat their lives with dignity. Because of the way this poem elevates simple country folk as worthy of respect, it is often seen as precursor to the Romantic movement, which had as a central credo the showing of humble people in the best possible light.