What are some neo-classical features in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?
Neo-classicism was the dominant form in 18th-century English poetry. Such poems, often associated with the work of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, were based on literary models provided by Greece and Rome. Since a gentleman's education in this period emphasized learning Greek and Latin, most schoolboys would be quite familiar with poems of antiquity written in Latin and Greek, just as we today are familiar with movies from earlier eras, such as The Wizard of Oz (the 1930s, however—the period when TheWizard of Oz was released—are clearly much closer to our own times than the Classical era to the 18th-century English.) The neo-classical poems 18th-century people wrote in imitation of the Greeks and Romans are generally more intellectual than emotional, and characterized by measured verses in regular rhymes.
While Gray does not address his elegy to a single individual, which is the standard Classical form, this poem falls into the category of "lacrinae rerum" or "tears of (or for) things." The phrase derives from the Latin poet Virgil's Aeneid, in which the hero looks at a mural depicting deaths in the Trojan war, and is moved to tears. In Gray's poem, the poet feels sad as he looks at a country graveyard, where obscure people are buried.
In the neo-classical mode, the tone and the rhyme scheme of a poem are measured and even, and the stance is intellectual rather than given to emotional outburst or breaks in the cadence. The Gray poem waxes philosophical:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
its sweetness on the desert air.
The poem communicates sadness, but the poet is distant from his subjects: it is sad that people die unmourned, but that's the way life is in the larger scheme of nature.
The best way to understand the difference in temperament between a neo-classically influenced poem like Gray's and a full-blown Romantic poem is to read some of Wordsworth's work in Lyrical Ballads, such as "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," to contrast the Romantic's outbursts with Gray's calm verses.