What is Gray's attitude towards the elegy?

In "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," Gray is emotionally moved by the elegy he has just written celebrating the unsung lives of ordinary people. He responds with an attitude of wishing that he or someone like him could be buried with an inscription praising a life lived far from fortune and fame.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard" is a sorrowful poem. The speaker in the poem is observing a cemetery, where he sees a variety of people "each in his narrow cell for ever laid." The mood of the poem from the onset is both sad and contemplative. Elegies, as a general rule, are written to lament the dead, and are normally quite mournful.

The speaker starts off describing both the countryside, and the things the dead will no longer see or hear. The speaker states:

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
This gives both a visual and auditory description of the world that has been lost to the dead. They shall never wake again. The speaker sounds wistful.
The common thread that seems to tie all of the people together in the graveyard is their mediocrity. The speaker describes their lives as quite simple:
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
This shows the dead lying in the cemetery have lived quiet lives. The speaker thinks of all the mundane lives of the dead, and believes we can "read their history in a nation's eyes."
Toward the end of the poem it seems the speaker is possibly contemplating his own life and death. He uses words like "lonely" and "longing" to bring forth a solitary feel, reminiscent of the solitude experienced in death. The poem goes on to an epitaph, which we can presume to be the speaker's.
Throughout the poem, the speaker remains quite morose and introspective. He does not feel extreme passion for the dead in the cemetery he speaks of because he does not know them. He mourns both our mortality in general, and his own death, which is also inevitable.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Gray himself is so moved by his thoughts about the simple, unsung people buried in a graveyard next to a rural church that in the poem's epitaph he expresses a feeling of heartfelt identification with them. He dreams of a headstone, possibly his own, that says:

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark'd him for her own.

In other words, Gray suggests he is fully emotionally invested in the idea he has developed about the worth of ordinary people. He perceives great value in living a quiet life in a backwater rather than chasing ambitiously after fame or greatness. He so much wants to be like these individuals that he would take pride in an epitaph or gravestone inscription that would exalt his own humble life. He characterizes himself—or the unknown youth he imagines buried—as one who is not famous and who was not born with any great advantages. He envisions a person who led a life of melancholy or sweet, contemplative sadness.

This idealizing of simple, obscure living represented a new way of looking at common people in the eighteenth century. Ordinarily such folk were simply window dressing in a pastoral poem or treated as "clowns": lesser, more foolish people who were often the butt of jokes (as Shakespeare treats the simple "mechanicals" or workmen in A Midsummer Night's Dream). It was new on Gray's part to idealize the average working person as the equal in potential and worth to someone famous or great.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial