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

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sullymonster | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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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.