illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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What is a critical analysis of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

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The title of this poem establishes the genre: an elegy. Interestingly, though, the person who is being mourned is never directly named. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker is mourning ordinary people who are buried in this little graveyard:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
Gray chooses to write this poem in tribute to the average, hardworking people who live lives of honor. This broke with the tradition of the time of writing about the rich and famous. For, as the speaker comments, "The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
The subject of the elegy then shifts to the speaker imagining some "kindred soul" walking in a graveyard one day and encountering his own (the speaker's) tombstone. What would he think? What would be said about him?
The subject of the elegy, therefore, is mortality itself. Whether rich or poor, whether well-known or unknown, each person eventually faces the moment when "curfew tolls the knell of parting day," which is the metaphor found in the very first line.
Gray follows a steady form throughout this poem. Consider stanza six:
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
Each line has five pairs of syllables in each line, and in each pair, the second syllable is stressed. This is the pattern of the entire poem, which means the entire poem is written in iambic pentameter.
Upon further inspection, each stanza is an example of heroic quatrain, which consists of four lines of iambic pentameter. Initially it might seem ironic to use heroic quatrain to write of average people, but the speaker warns:
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The use of heroic quatrain is intentional to demonstrate the value of people living "ordinary" lives. Gray believes that average, ordinary people live with honor, work hard, and are greatly loved. They are, therefore, heroic, and his poem honors them in its form.
This tight meter also serves another purpose: it beats on in steady rhythm for 32 stanzas. By doing so, it begins to mimic the tick-tock of a clock, serving as a further reminder of the mortality of us all.
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"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray is a poem written as an elegy, in terms of concept, but it uses a modern format not usually associated with elegies during Gray's time. As the title suggests, the poem is an elegy; it was written for a friend and colleague of Gray's, Horace Walpole.

The poem is long and follows a stream-of-consciousness monologue style, but it contains the usual poetic elements and rhythm. Since it is an elegy, the poem is largely a meditation on death and remembrance. Gray shares his perspectives on death—that it is simply a state of being that is part of life and should not be feared.

Gray also concludes that remembering loved ones who have passed away can be painful but also a way to ease grief. This is one of the subtle but fascinating elements of the poem, because the poem itself, an elegy, is supposed to be a form of remembering or celebrating the life of someone who has passed.

This poem is an example of a setting's importance. As the title suggests, Gray wrote the poem in a churchyard, particularly at St. Giles Church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire. The mood and idyllic setting of the churchyard—with its old gravestones and hilly surroundings—provided Gray with vivid details to include in the poem as well as objects to use as metaphors or symbolism.

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What could be some possible analysis points of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

Well, one place to start would be to consider how this poem presents its main theme, which is that of death. The poem features a narrator, who passes by a churchyard in the countryside and considers the meaning of the corpses buried in this churchyard. The graveyard seems to act as a reminder to the narrator of his own consciousness of mortality. Thus it is that the opening stanzas present a contrast between life and death. Thus it is that the "rude forefathers of the hamlet," "each in their own cell," are compared to various signs of the vigorous life of nature, such as "the moping owl," the swallow and the cock. You will also want to analyse the way that the poem begins by creating a mood enacting the theme of mortality. Consider the opening stanza:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Note how a depressing, serious and sombre mood is created through the reference to the gradual dimming of the light, the "weary" ploughman "plodding" and the cattle lowing. Symbolically, of course, the end of day could be said to represent the death of man, which makes the setting particularly fitting for the consideration of man's mortality that follows.

Hopefully this introduction will give you a basis on which you can base your further analysis of the poem, as the narrator discusses the dead in the graveyard and considers what he can learn from this visible sign of the impermanence of mankind.

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