Who is being mourned for in Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Although the initial inspiration for Thomas Gray's  poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” may have been the 1742 death of his friend Richard West, the final version, published in 1751, does not focus on mourning for any one particular person, but instead is an example of a more general meditation concerning mortality, reflecting what Virgil expressed in the seminal line in Aeneid I.462, "Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt."

The first three stanzas set a general mood of melancholy, invoking an image of the setting sun as foreshadowing mortality; just as the sun sets, so too does human life end. Starting at line 13, Gray imagines the inhabitants of these graves as farmers, housewives, shepherds, and other members of rural or village society, living a simple pastoral life. 

In the subsequent lines, Gray requests the sympathy of the reader for the lives of the ordinary people buried here, suggesting that just because they were not famous, they were no less valuable as human beings than those born to wealth or fame who had a wider scope for their actions. He even suggests that many of the people buried in this graveyard may have been as talented and impressive within the small world of their village as people whose deeds are better known:

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,

Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

In the final lines, Gray contemplates the possibility of his own death, and thus ends with the implication that in mourning for the people buried in the country graveyard, he is also mourning for the death that awaits both himself and his readers.

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