illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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What are some figures of speech in Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

Figures of speech in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" include personification, as when the "moping owl" is described "complain[ing]" to the moon, and metaphor, as seen in the description of a grave as a "narrow cell."

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There are numerous figures of speech to be found in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."
A figure of speech is simply a literary device used to intensify imagery and heighten the effect of the writing. In this poem, Gray is particularly dedicated to the use of personification, which we first see in the description of the "moping owl" which issues a "complain[t]" to the moon. Personification is a form of metaphor in which human characteristics are attributed to something which is not human; here, Gray is imagining feelings and motivations for the owl, which in all probability, are not really there.
Later in the poem, we see personification used far more extensively to depict various abstract ideas, such as Honour, Knowledge, and Penury. When describing the old men of the "hamlet" who lie sleeping in the churchyard, Gray conjures the image of memory raising (or rather, failing to raise) "trophies" over their tombs. This is a vivid use of personification, as it encourages the reader to consider memory as a living being which can choose whether or not to celebrate those who have previously died. Death, meanwhile, is described as having a "cold ear," suggesting that it (or he) is reluctant to listen to the appeals of Honour, Memory, or "Flatt'ry." Once a man is dead, he is dead.
We can also see evidence of more conventional metaphor in the poem, as Gray describes each old man of the hamlet as lying in a "narrow cell." The word "cell" here probably does not imply a prison cell but, rather, the sort of cell in which a monk might live as part of a community. This creates the sense that the dead men are simply biding their time in their graves, waiting to be awoken and welcomed to the "bosom" of God.
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Thomas Gray's powerful and evocative poem, "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," employs a Neo-classical form while demonstrating poetic techniques of Romanticism. Gray's elegy is written in heroic quatrains of a lofty tone--a stanza of four lines of iambic pentameter having the rhyme scheme abab. It ends with an epitaph, a poetic inscription intended to be on a gravestone. 

Below are some figures of speech that this poem employs. 

Personification: the attribution of human traits to non-human or inanimate objects

  • In stanza 9: "Let not Ambition mock their useful tool." Ambition is capitalized as though it were a name, and it "mocks," which is a human trait.
  • In stanza 9: "The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,/ And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave." "Boast" and "pomp" are human characteristics.
  • In stanza 11: "Flattery" can "soothe," and "Death" possesses a "cold ear." "Flattery" is given the human ability to soothe; Death is mentioned as a person who possesses an ear and refuses to hear.
  • In stanza 12: "Hands" might have been "swayed"--(persuaded). Hands are a human trait, and people persuade.
  • In stanza 13: "Knowledge to their eyes her ample page." The feminine pronoun her is used with the quality of knowledge, thus affording it human qualities.
  • In stanza 22: "Forgetfulness" is "dumb." Because most objects and living things are mute, making it notable that something or someone is unable to speak is personification.
  • In stanza 23: "The voice of Nature." Nature is likened to a person who speaks.

Metaphor: (often) an unstated comparison of two unlike things; one thing is spoken of as though it were something else

  • In stanza 9: "The boast of heraldry" (noble descent, wealth and power) and "the paths of glory" (honor and distinction) "lead but to the grave." Gray makes unstated comparisons of noble descent to the possession of wealth, power, and "paths of glory" to distinction.
  • In stanza 15: "The little tyrant of his fields withstood." Here, Gray alludes to the unknown poor who are buried in the churchyard and the possibility that some of them may have been infamous or great if they had been of a higher social station and of notable names. The farmer, for instance, is likened in an unstated comparison to a "tyrant." Also, another buried in this forgotten churchyard may have been "Some mute inglorious Milton," and still another may have been "Some Cromwell."

Alliteration: The repetition of consonant sounds in a line of poetry

  • In stanza 9, the /p/ is repeated-- "the pomp of power"
  • In stanza 22, the /l/ is repeated-- "Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?"
  • In stanza 25, the /h/ is repeated, as is /s/: "Haply some hoary-headed swain may say."
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Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" contains different figures of speech (or poetic/rhetorical devices). 

Alliteration is found in line six. Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound within a line of poetry. Line six contains the words "solemn stillness." The repetition of the "s" sound is alliteration. Alliteration is also found in line 36: "glory lead but to the grave." Here, the "g" sound is repeated. 

Personificationis found in line ten. Personification is the giving of human characteristics to non-human/non-living things. In line ten, the owl mopes and complains (characteristics, or abilities, which humans possess). Another example of personification is found in line 44: "or Flattery sooth the dull cold ear of Death." Here, the capitalization of "Flattery" and "Death" show make each proper nouns, as with names. 

Assonance is found in line 41. Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound. The repetition of the "a" sound in the following line is assonance: "Can storied urn or animated bust." 


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