illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray
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Why does the poet mention "chill penury" in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

The poet mentions "chill penury" because he wants to tell us why the ordinary folk lying buried in the churchyard were unable to access knowledge. They were held back by poverty.

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Penury is an old-fashioned word for poverty, and Gray surmises that most of the people buried in the churchyard, the ordinary folk, the common clay, lived lives of extreme poverty. Gray is able to come to this conclusion simply by looking at their gravestones. Not for them are the elaborate...

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Penury is an old-fashioned word for poverty, and Gray surmises that most of the people buried in the churchyard, the ordinary folk, the common clay, lived lives of extreme poverty. Gray is able to come to this conclusion simply by looking at their gravestones. Not for them are the elaborate urns and ornaments that mark out the final resting places of the rich, privileged, and famous.

The poverty that afflicted their lives had a number of negative effects, not the least of which was ignorance. In those days, there was no such thing as state education, so the ordinary country folk elegized by Gray were too poor to acquire the knowledge that their alleged social superiors took for granted.

Instead, they were expected to work from an early age, and as such work seldom required even basic literary skills, most poor folk, especially in the countryside, never learned to read or write.

As Gray muses, such poverty has had a truly chilling effect in that it has prevented ordinary folk from getting acquainted with knowledge, which the poet likens to a vast collection of pages. The chilling effect of penury is such that it represses all the noble parts of their characters.

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