illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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What does the title "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" mean?

The title "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" describes the intention of the poem, which is to reflect on the dead resting in the titular graveyard. An elegy is a melancholic poem which expresses grief or sorrow for the dead, and Gray's speaker laments the deaths of the impoverished rural people buried before him.

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An elegy is a poem lamenting a deceased person or, in some cases, a lost time, place, or item. In the case of Thomas Gray's famous poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," the elegy is ostensibly for all of the dead who sleep in the eponymous rural churchyard. The speaker does not describe any one individual but makes his lamentation a collective one.

More broadly, Gray is writing about the finality and universality of death. By describing the daily activities of the people buried in the churchyard, such as sitting by the hearth, working in the fields, and kissing family members in welcome, Gray is stressing the shortness and even the futility of life. Eventually, even the most mundane activities—those most taken for granted—will come to an end.

By the end of the poem, Gray's speaker has shifted from speaking of the dead in the churchyard to addressing his own inevitable end. He imagines a person similar to himself wandering through the graveyard and coming across the speaker's headstone. Then the speaker imagines one of the villagers speaking about him to this person. Here, the speaker is including himself in the elegy he has just written, stressing once and for all the universality of death. Thus the title of the poem refers to the whole of humanity as well as the people interred in a specific churchyard, for Gray's elegy is indeed all-encompassing.

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What does the third stanza of the poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" mean?

9. Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r
10. The moping owl does to the moon complain
11. Of such, as wand'ring near her secret bow'r,
12. Molest her ancient solitary reign.

He is saying it is all very quiet and peaceful (stanza 1 and 2) except for the sound of the owl, who is complaining to the moon about those who disrupt the solitude of her domain. Gray's note about this stanza is: "Molest her ancient solitary reign. - bother the owl while it keeps watch over the churchyard and countryside." (While you're at it, note the use of personification here). The solitary hooting of the owl probably adds to the mournful feeling.

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What is the meaning of the 23rd stanza of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

The four lines of the twenty-third stanza of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" are

"On some fond breast the parting soul relies,

Some pious drops the closing eye requires;

Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,

Ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires".

These lines speak of the universal need on the part of the dead to be mourned and remembered.  The dying rely on the living to keep their memory alive; the "closing eye" of the person at the point of death has a fundamental need for the "pious drops", or tears, of those left behind who mourn their passing.  The longing of the dead to be remembered reaches from beyond the grave, "ev'n from the tomb".  Some translators have interpreted the last line of the stanza to mean that the memory of the dead, along with their yearnings, actually live on in those of us...

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who remain in tangible form on earth.

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What does the twenty fifth stanza of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" mean?

In this stanza, the writer of the poem is wondering what would happen if he died.  He wonders if he died, if a "Kindred spirit" who also likes to ponder the lives of the dead (as he does) would come along and wonder about his life.  He says that "Haply some hoary-headed Swain may say, / 'Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn/Brushing with hasty steps the dews away/To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.'"  Here Gray is simply saying that maybe someone (hoary-headed Swain probably refers to a farm laborer) will come by his grave and think to himself, "Hey, this is that one guy that I always saw early in the morning, brushing the dew away from his clothes (because he'd been out all night contemplating life in the graveyard), getting ready to meet the day".  Gray, in his contemplations in the graveyard, or his nighttime walks, probably often saw farm laborers going out to their fields at dawn, so he is just wondering if anyone would remember those early-morning meetings.

I also provided a link to a complete interpretation and summary of the entire poem-that should be very helpful.  

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