illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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What special features of the "Elegy" made it so popular?

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Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is an easy-to-understand meditation on death. Its popularity is likely due to the simplicity of its form and the universality of its message. Although its title implies the poem is an elegy, it is not an elegy in the strictest sense. While the poem was inspired by the death of a young poet, it is not addressed to him, nor does it directly mourn him. Gray's elegy is actually more like an ode in that it celebrates the lives and deaths of common people.

The speaker of Gray's elegy sings the praises of those people who live common lives, do common work, and go through life without ever becoming known. The poem makes the case that nobility, true nobility, doesn't come from birth but from the way people live their lives. The poem also suggests that intellect and talent can be found among the common people and not only among the wealthy and famous.

The language of the poem is lyrical yet simple, reading more like a lyric of the Romantic age than of the Restoration. The poem's simplicity and its overt celebration of the common man undoubtedly inspired William Wordsworth, as these became important tenets of the Romantic literature he introduced at the end of the eighteenth century in Lyrical Ballads. Gray's "Elegy," then, was popular among the readers of his time, as well as among later generations of readers and writers.

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The poem was Thomas Gray's most influential poem, and has earned him respect as a poet of the time.  The poem is relatively simple, describing a country churhyard at sunset, and calling to mind the mortality of all human beings in the study of the graves being examined.

One of the main reasons it is as popular as it is revolves around the fact that it centers not on popular or heroic figures of the time, but on the common man.  Gray connects the common to the extraordinary man in death, thereby connecting all humans to one another because we are all mortal.

In addition, Gray demonstrates a mixing of two very distinct literary periods.  The poem was written at the end of the Augustan Age and at the beginning of the Romantic period, and the poem has characteristics associated with both literary periods. On the one hand, it has the ordered, balanced phrasing and rational sentiments of Neoclassical poetry. Using heroic quatrains, four line stanzas with an abab rhyme scheme, keeps the poem on the balanced and traditional level.

On the other hand, it tends toward the emotionalism and individualism of the Romantic poets.  Natural imagery of the smallest type is used, references to birds and bettles and such.  In using this style, Gray idealizes and elevates the common man.

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