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.