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Neo-classicism was the dominant form in 18th-century English poetry. Such poems, often associated with the work of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, were based on literary models provided by Greece and Rome. Since a gentleman's education in this period emphasized learning Greek and Latin, most schoolboys would be quite familiar with poems of antiquity written in Latin and Greek, just as we today are familiar with movies from earlier eras, such as The Wizard of Oz (the 1930s, however—the period when The Wizard of Oz was released—are clearly much closer to our own times than the Classical era to the 18th-century English.) The neo-classical poems 18th-century people wrote in imitation of the Greeks and Romans are generally more intellectual than emotional, and characterized by measured verses in regular rhymes.
While Gray does not address his elegy to a single individual, which is the standard Classical form, this poem falls into the category of "lacrinae rerum" or "tears of (or for) things." The phrase derives from the Latin poet Virgil's Aeneid, in which the hero looks at a mural depicting deaths in the Trojan war, and is moved to tears. In Gray's poem, the poet feels sad as he looks at a country graveyard, where obscure people are buried.
In the neo-classical mode, the tone and the rhyme scheme of a poem are measured and even, and the stance is intellectual rather than given to emotional outburst or breaks in the cadence. The Gray poem waxes philosophical:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
In his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," Thomas Gray employs the neo-classical use of personification in his poem of strict iambic pentameter with eloquent classical diction. There is a compliance and conformity to the classical form of an elegy as Gray gives his individual estimate of the world, which is, however, a Romantic expression.
The pace of iambic pentameter [an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable 5 times--ta dum, ta dum, ta dum, ta dum, ta dum] is dignified, and Gray makes skillful use of monosyllabic words and long vowels in his elegy. The following stanza is an example:
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,/Their sober wishes never learned to stray;/Along the cool, sequestered vale of life/They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Personification is also a neo-classical trait which Gray utilizes:
The boast of hearldry, 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.
Of course, this elegy which laments the dead, evokes the classical idea of momento mori, a Latin phrase meaning "Remember that you must die." Death comes to all, the exalted and the humble; Gray reflects upon the lives of the common people buried in the churchyard, lives spent doing labor with simple enjoyments at the end of the day.
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