Discuss the major themes that are correlated by Thomas Gray in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One theme that emerges from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is the way we remember the dead.

The speaker wonders what people will remember him for; he considers that perhaps he will be remembered for his ties to nature. Specifically, he recalls the way he watched babbling brooks and how he was always up at dawn to meet the sun.

In the end, the speaker writes his own epitaph, pointing an imaginary visitor toward an imaginary tombstone he envisions for himself. What does he hope will be noted there?

He wants to be remembered as being from humble origins, having neither "fortune" nor "fame" in his youth. He is proud that he became an intellectual through "fair science" and hopes that his accomplishment will be noted.

He also wants to be remembered for being a "soul sincere." He is thankful that Heaven sent him one true friend on this earth. We see here the character qualities that the speaker values most highly, namely, kindness, sincerity, and friendship.

Finally, the speaker wants to be known as being faithful to God. His earthly "merits" are now unimportant, and his "frailties," or character flaws, no longer matter either. Through death, he has returned to the "bosom of his Father and his God."

The speaker finds the practice of erecting statues to the dead as nothing more than "frail memorial[s]" that are ultimately insignificant. They elicit only "the passing tribute of a sigh." This earthly response pales in comparison to the speaker's eternal spiritual goals.

Ultimately, then, one of the themes found in the poem is that of living a life of eternal significance, developing one's faith, and being remembered as a faithful servant of Christ. This overarching goal helps transcribe the rest of the epitaph. Godly principles guide the speaker throughout a life that will be worth remembrance.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An important theme of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard" is that death is the great leveler. Gray uses this idea to exhort the wealthy and powerful not to look down upon the simple lives of the poor peasants buried in the country cemetery, because death equalizes everyone. In the end, death takes us all, no matter how powerful. The poet finds solace in the "noiseless tenor of their [the simple people's] way," which never led them into "Luxury and Pride."

Gray's elegy also expresses the theme that people have equality of gifts, if not of opportunities. As he writes, many a "mute inglorious Milton" lies buried in an obscure grave, unknown, because life never offered him the opportunity to develop his gifts. Gray depicts this lack of opportunity as a gain as well as a loss: fortunately for them, none of these people had the opportunity to exercise the kind of power that leads to bloodshed and to "shut[ting] the gates of mercy."

Finally, Gray depicts obscurity as a natural state—as natural and as inevitable as what happens to flowers. He writes:

Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
By positing obscurity and poverty as "natural," Gray's poem leads to acceptance and resignation. The mood is melancholic, and Gray embraces that. Just as we all must die, we all must accept our status in life.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main theme of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is the inevitability of death. This is a poem that expresses the sentiment known as memento mori: a reminder of our own mortality.

The scene is of a country churchyard with a graveyard. There are many symbols that relate to death: the curfew "tolls," the day is "parting, and "all the air a solemn stillness holds." Graves are noted as "narrow cell(s)" and "lowly bed(s)." The speaker goes on describing what the dead used to do. Then he stresses that these things no longer occur. There is a sense of the irretrievable past.

Beginning around the 9th stanza, the speaker adds that death is a fate to all, no matter how rich or poor one might have been:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,

Awaits alike the inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

The speaker also wonders about the dead. Who were they? What inspired them? "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness on the desert air." Lying in these graves might be someone like the great writer John Milton or the leader Cromwell. The speaker adds that the dead, regardless of their station in life, deserve respect. He says this because it is right and moralistic, but also because he will be dead some day as well. He then wonders if another solitary person will think of him while strolling through the graveyard: "If chance, by lonely contemplation led, / Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate."

Gray (the speaker) imagines this person (presumably an old farmer - "hoary-headed swain") commenting upon Grays' life. This begins at line 98. The old farmer remembers that Gray was a wanderer, "forlorn," "or crossed in hopeless love." This is a fitting description of Gray, a solemn, meditative poet.

The poem is about becoming aware of, and meditating upon, death. In contemplating the deaths of others, Gray then imagines his own death. It all seems quite pessimistic, but one of the effects of a memento mori poem is that, in acknowledging death, one can then decide to make the most of life, to make the best of the time that is given to us.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial