illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

Start Free Trial

Write a critical appreciation of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." 

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

That Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is a powerful and poignant poem is evinced in its immediate success, as well as in the many imitations of this work. In fact, Samuel Johnson declared Thomas Gray the man who wrote the English poem most loved by "the common reader."

Gray felt that "the language of the age is never the language of poetry." Yet, although he uses archaic diction and distorted syntax at times, Gray's elegy balances Latinate phrases with current English expressions. Moreover, thematically it touches a common humanity that all readers can share. Johnson, who did not care for Gray's poetry, recognized this elegy as one that would last forever:

The churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.

In the neo-classical form of an elegiac poem, Gray expresses his individual estimate of the world using eloquent classical diction. The verses carry a lofty tone and are composed of heroic quatrains (four lines of iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme abab). The neo-classical use of personification abounds in this formal work, as well, as in the following stanza, which also exemplifies Gray's lofty tone:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
    Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
    The short and simple annals of the poor.

What lends the poem its beauty and poignancy is the moving expression of thought and emotion that is purely Romantic, as it touches upon Nature and sympathy for the unknown in the graveyard. The idea that 

Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,
     And froze the genial current of the soul

is a poignant one, indeed, as Gray raises the implicit question of social class at a time when ideas of equality were exceptional. Also, the sentiment of remembrance for the "unhonored dead" who have waged battles of their own but their "lot forbade" their renown is brightened by the Romantic notion that Nature and the Eternal provide hope after death, as the soul reposes in "The bosom of His Father and his God."

This line about the bosom of God is the last of the elegy's epitaph. Traditionally, this elegy has begun solemnly with the poet's lament, but ends with an insight that enables the poet to cope with the loss he senses.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There is a good explanation of this poem right here on eNotes, at the link below.

Essentially, the poem can be summed up by the following line (from the poem):

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Note that the poem is "written in a COUNTRY churchyard." This poem, therefore, is about the deaths of common people, farmers, workers, mothers and fathers:

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;How jocund did they drive their team afield!How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

An "elegy" is a poetic lament for the dead, and this poem...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

celebrates the honor of lives that were lived simply, but happily. Just because the people buried in this country churchyard were common people, does not mean that their lives were not important in God's eyes.

As the epitaph on the gravestone says:

No farther seek his merits to disclose,Or draw his frailties from their dread abode(There they alike in trembling hope repose),The bosom of his Father and his God.

Death is a type of rest in which nothing one has accomplished on earth matters. We leave our hopes, our dreams, our "frailties" and our "merits" at the grave as we enter into the "hope and respose" of the Father, God.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Can you give an appreciation of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

Perhaps the most salient motif of Thomas is the idea of the Latin phrase that Thomas Gray evokes, momento mori; that is, "Remember that you must die."  As Gray ponders this sentiment, observing the modest graves in the "neglected spot," he concludes that in death there is no difference between the renowned and the common people.

In fact, as the poet continues his contemplation of the unknown people in this churchyard, he reflects that

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid/Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;/Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed/or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page/Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;/Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,/And froze the genial current of the soul.

In other words, beneath these graves there may lie souls far nobler than those of the renowed graves.  Only lack of wealth and opportunity prevented their development.  And, yet, Gray continues, they may be all the nobler for not having reached fame since they lived purer and more honest lives:

Far from the madding crowd's* ignoble strife/Their sober wishes never learned to stray;/Along the cool, sequestered vale of life/They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

In their nobility of soul, then, the common people buried in the graveyard are the equal, if not superior to others. This motif is an inspiring one that the reader can appreciate. At any rate, death, the great equalizer, has come to all.


*(note)"Far from the madding crowd" is the title of a Thomas Hardy novel. 

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Can you give an appreciation of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

There is much in this rather lengthy work that can be appreciated.  The structure of heroic quatrains help to emphasize the purpose of the poem as a musing over the existence of life and the reality of death.  The opening lines bring to mind the image of something coming to its natural end.  The idea of the random visitor who is able to ponder about the nature of mortality and the lives led by others upon seeing a graveyard is a powerful one.  It is the most natural experience when coming to any such location and Gray identifies on what this resembles in terms of asking questions, postulating about the nature of existence, and wondering about how mortality and life are elements where there are only questions and, few, if any, answers.  The stillness, the end of the day, help to bring to light that when thinking about such issues, all other forms of thought cease as there are no more relevant topics than the one of life and death.  Gray captures the essence of this transferal on the part of the speaker to the lives once led as the graveyard is being studied.  The images of the "busy housewife" or "no children run to lisp their sire's return" help to bring to light the fact that when examining the death of others, human beings have a tendency to transfer their own experiences or hypothesize how their lives might have been.  This helps to bring a universal quality to the poem, for, again, it is quite natural to engage in this type of wonderment as there will be little to prove it being wrong.  Amidst this rumination, there are lines such as "The paths of glory lead but to the grave," helping to cement the idea that what is wondered about from a distance is an end that awaits all human beings, and thus reaffirming the meaning of such a thought process.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on