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 the main message of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

The main message of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is that death renders all humans equal, no matter their respective roles in life. As the speaker muses on the ordinary folk buried in the eponymous churchyard, he reflects that they now occupy the same status as the great figures who overshadowed them in life.

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In his eloquent celebration of the virtues of the common man, Thomas Gray presents us with a striking picture of death as the ultimate democracy, a condition in which every human, from the highest to the lowest, is made equal.

Whatever social differences may exist on earth—and such differences were notable in Gray's time—everyone will one day die. And death will prove to be the ultimate leveler; it will generate the kind of social equality absent in the society that exists above ground.

In life, the working classes, the ordinary people who bring in the harvest and gather lumber, were considered socially inferior to the great figures of history—the generals, the artists, the poets—who shaped civilization for good or ill. But in death, the common people, the “mute, inglorious Miltons,” are on the same level as those who once lorded it over them. As Great succinctly says, "The paths of glory lead but to the grave."

That being the case, Gray enjoins readers not to look down upon the ordinary people, not to let “ambition mock their useful toil.” In a classic example of a memento mori, Gray wants readers to remember that they, too, will one day die and that they perhaps should hope to be commemorated with the same degree of respect as that with which Gray treats the “mute, inglorious Miltons” buried in the churchyard.

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