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 theme of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard"?

The overriding theme of Gray's "Elegy" is that death comes to us all. As the speaker reflects upon death in the eponymous country churchyard, he muses that death is the great leveler. Whatever class differences may exist this side of eternity, in death we are all the same. This applies to the great and the good as well as the ordinary folk, those "mute, inglorious Miltons" who in another life could well have achieved greatness themselves.

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Traditional elegies were composed to commemorate the memories of specific individuals, usually people of high social standing and reputation. In his "Elegy", however, Gray departs from poetic convention by reflecting on death in general, rather than the death of a named individual. As he does so, Gray sees death as the great leveler, the fate which no one can avoid no matter how rich, powerful, or socially prominent they may be; "the paths of glory lead but to the grave."

Gray's conception of eternity as a kind of democracy of the dead allows him to pay fulsome tribute to those ordinary folks buried beneath the churchyard. Most of the people will have been simple farmers, artisans, horny-handed sons and daughters of toil—the kind of people often forgotten by historians; certainly not the kind of people traditionally eulogized in elegies.

Gray then wonders what these ordinary folk may have achieved had things turned out differently for them, such as if they hadn't lived in such a rigidly hierarchical society. Perhaps they could've been great poets like Milton or brilliant statesmen and generals like Cromwell. Who knows? In any case, Gray pays a handsome tribute to the common folk buried beneath the churchyard. He likens them to gems that are never found and blooms that are never seen.

Gray lived in a deeply class-conscious society; it says a lot about that society that Gray was only able to conceive of any kind of social equality as taking place in the realm of the eternal, long after all those buried in the country churchyard have passed away.

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