In Thomas Gray’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” the speaker presents a number of different kinds of consolation or solace in the face of death. Among these kinds of comfort are the following:
- Being memorialized in stone, even if the memorial proves only to be a “frail memorial” covered with “uncouth rhymes” or supplemented by a “shapeless sculpture” (79). Even these relatively unsophisticated memorials can implore “the passing tribute of a sigh” (80) – yet another source of consolation or solace, since it suggests that one will be remembered and mourned by others after one’s death.
- Being remembered and cared for by the living, such as those who feel the pain of our passing in their hearts or cry for us as or when we do pass away (89-90).
- Being remembered in poetry or other forms of writing (94), such as Gray’s own poem.
- Being remembered by other persons who may not even have known us well, as in lines 97ff.
- Enjoying friendship while alive on earth (124).
- Enjoying the favor of God (124).
- The “hope” of achieving some “repose” within “The bosom of his Father and his God” (128).
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this poem, especially when it is compared and contrasted to a work such as John Milton’s “Lycidas,” is how much emphasis it places on being remembered in worldly ways, by other human beings, and how little emphasis it places on the consolations of joy in heaven with God. Such repose is indeed mentioned in the final lines, but this kind of compensation would have been stressed far more strongly in earlier English poems, from the times of the Anglo-Saxons to the times of the English Renaissance. Gray, however, pays little attention to heavenly rewards, and even the imagined “Epitaph” begins as follows:
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown . . . (117-18)
Even here, then, the emphasis seems worldly in more ways than one, and although God is mentioned or alluded to in the final two stanzas, the poem is far less overtly Christian in its message than one might have expected.
In Thomas Gray's poem, "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," the author's primary focus is on the "equalization" of death. He notes that regardless of how important one is, all life ends in death.
The common man and woman will find joy in family, but still will find death at the end of their days:
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
Thomas Gray points out that while the common man will face death some day, the same fate waits for those of power and importance:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Gray seems to infer that it is not how one was perceived by others that matters at the end of one's life, but the manner in which a person led his or her life. Here, then, is Gray's sense of redemption, the hope or solace he finds in confronting, most likely, his own death. Gray indicates that he is a man of faith who believes in a life after the grave. This is not clearly evident until the reader reaches the section of the poem entitled, "The Epitaph." We might easily assume, by the end of the poem, that Gray is writing this for himself. If this is truly the case, he hopes that after death, God will find in his time on earth, a life well-led.
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven ('twas all he wished) a
The author notes a "soul sincere;" he also describes a giving, sympathetic heart:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear...
The poem notes that the subject of the epitaph gains a friend in Heaven—all that he wanted—which means that Heaven smiled down on the man because of the good deeds he had done and the way he cared for others.
In the final stanza, the author speaks of what is left of the dead man:
No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.
The man at rest will no longer practice virtuous behavior; his frailties lie with him in the grave: both "alike in trembling hope repose"—both wait for judgment, hoping that the merits will be rewarded and the frailties forgiven. His spirit is hoping to be embraced by his "Father and his God." One in the same, the dead man hopes that God will take him into heaven regardless of his mistakes, but mindful of all he did to please Heaven while living here on Earth. This is the Gray's solace—his hope...that he will be redeemed ("released from blame or death").