Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Questions and Answers
by Thomas Gray

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard book cover
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What is the significance of the epitaph in the poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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An epitaph is a tribute written to someone dead. The epitaph of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is often taken to refer to Gray himself and what he thinks might be written about him after he dies. It states:

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.

But the verse is also sometimes interpreted to simply be the epitaph to an anonymous poet. Therefore it is a riddle.

However, if it refers to Gray, it is significant because it shows that he identifies with all the humble, unknown souls lying in the country churchyard. He is not setting himself above them, but states he is equally obscure. Like them, he has not been born to fortune, which would be high rank or money.

However, given that he is praising these simple people for their worthy if unsung lives, he would appear to be equally praising himself in his epitaph. If he is praising himself for his obscurity, it is ironic, because he has become a famous poet, still read centuries after his death.

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Jason Lulos eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The speaker in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is contemplating death. He looks upon the graves in the churchyard and he ruminates on those buried there. It is quite gloomy, a "memento mori" poem, which means to contemplate one's own mortality. As he considers mortality, the speaker considers what is important to him and therefore this gloomy poem about death does have its glass-is-half-full interpretation. There is an obvious homage to the "low" classes as they lived honest, simple lives and a criticism of the extravagance of the lives and memorials of the rich. Therefore, the poem is also the speaker's quest to find himself or a quest to understand what is important in life. And this is where the epitaph comes in. Most scholars agree that the epitaph is Gray's or the persona of the speaker's. Given the implied modesty in the epitaph, we might assume that it was written by someone else; not the speaker himself. This means that another person is looking at the speaker's death in philosophical contemplation of mortality just as the speaker himself did throughout the context of the poem. 

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