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Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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What are some of the "sound devices" used in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray?

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In this lengthy poem by Thomas Gray, the reader can find an abundance of poetic sound devices, including rhythm/meter, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia

The poem maintains consistent iambic pentameter; that is, each line consists of ten syllables with alternating stresses (first unstressed, then stressed). Each stanza has a consistent abab rhyme scheme, meaning that the first and third lines of each stanza and the second and fourth lines rhyme. The rhymes are almost exclusively masculine or strong rhyme, meaning that they are single-syllable words that rhyme on the accent of the poetic foot. Thus in the first stanza, day rhymes with way and lea rhymes with me. Strong rhymes like these create a sure and confident feeling as the poem progresses, reinforcing the idea that death is inevitable for all.

The poet uses alliteration, repetition of initial consonant sounds in words of close proximity, liberally. Line 107 is an example: "woeful, wan, like one forlorn." The /w/ sound is repeated in three out of four words in a row. Lines 3, 6, 8, and 10 all contain additional examples of alliteration.

Assonance is also used frequently. With this device, vowel sounds repeat in nearby words. In line 7, "beetle wheels" is a good example; note the repeated long /e/ sound in the two words. In lines 34 and 35, four words begin with an a that makes the /ah/ sound. 

Consonance occurs when internal or ending consonant sounds appear in words that are close together; sometimes initial consonant sounds can add to the mix. As an example, the /l/ sound occurs in many words in the first two lines of the poem, creating a quiet, meditative tone. Similarly, lines 61 through 64 include many words with /n/ sounds in the middle or at the end. 

Onomatopoeia, or sound-imitative words, appear in the poem, although not as much as one might expect. Twittering in line 18 and babbles in line 104 are two of the strongest examples.

Gray's poem, an example of traditional verse, makes plenteous use of the sound devices--such as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia--that were typically found in poetry of the eighteenth century. 

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In his famous "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," Thomas Gray uses several forms of poetic "sound devices."  Here are some examples.

1. Alliteration: The repetition of initial consonant sounds.

Line 2: "The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea"

Line 4: "The plowman homeward plods his weary way"

Line 28: "How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke"

2. Rhyme:

In most places, Gray uses standard, "full" rhyme: day-lea, sight-flight, holds-folds, complain, reign, etc.

Occasionally, though, Gray uses partial rhymes.

Lines 29,31: toil, smile

Lines 30, 32: obscure, poor

Lines 58, 60: withstood, blood

Some of these may indicate that Gray's pronunciation was different than our contemporary pronunciation.  In other cases , he may simply be "stretching" his rhymes.

Onomatopoeia: words that imitate a sound (moo, meow, etc.)

I have not been able to find examples of onomatopoeia in Gray's "Elegy."  At first, I thought that the words "tolls," "knell," and "lowing," might be onomatopoeic, but the dictionaries I consulted do not seem to agree with this theory.


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