illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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How is the former life of the villagers buried in the churchyard described?

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The speaker describes those buried in the churchyard as the poor, who have modest, simple graves. The poor were never able to fulfill their political and artistic potential because they were uneducated—they never received the "Knowledge" that would have enable them to rule and to create. Instead, "Penury," or poverty, "froze the genial current of their soul." That is, poverty paralyzed their ability to draw upon their innermost passions that could have inspired them to become great poets or politicians. Gray observes that the talents of the poor are like a "gem" hidden in the ocean or a "flower" blooming in the desert. Just as an unseen flower in the desert is a "waste," Gray suggests, the uneducated talents of the poor are also a "waste," because they remain unused and undeveloped, although within them there may have lain fantastic possibilities to attain greatness beyond measure. “Because these farm laborers were not in positions of power, the speaker reasons, they never had to ignore their own consciences. The speaker praises the simple life of common people. They are "far from the madding crowd" of city and political life. In either case, the common country people were removed from this insane world; as a result, they never "strayed" into the immoral acts of the powerful. Instead, they kept steadily to their simple but meaningful lives and they still deserve homage or tribute."

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