Thomas Gray probably began “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” about 1746. It was originally a somewhat shorter poem than the version he published in 1751, and some have speculated that the poem may have been occasioned by an actual death, perhaps that of Gray’s friend Richard West in 1742. When Gray designated his work as an elegy, he placed it in a long tradition of meditative poems that focus on human mortality and sometimes reflect specifically on the death of a single person. By setting his meditation in a typical English churchyard with mounds, gravestones, and yew trees, Gray was also following a tradition. Some of the most popular poems in the middle of Gray’s century were set in graveyards and meditated on death.
“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is cast in four-line stanzas, or quatrains, in which the first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth. This abab pattern, at this time associated with elegiac poetry, gives the poem an appropriately stately pace. The last three stanzas are printed in italic type and given the title “The Epitaph.”
In the first three stanzas (lines 1 to 12), Gray sets the scene for his private and quiet meditations. He is far from the city and looking out from a country churchyard at a rural scene, but the sights and sounds of this rural world of men and beasts fade away. Although the scene is beautiful, life is not joyous, and Gray reflects that this day dies just like the one before it, as the plowman plods wearily home. The poet is alone, but he is not tired. The text gives a sense of the vitality of his solitude and of the stillness of the scene by describing the few things that remain to disturb it: the tinkling of the cattle who have returned home, the drone of the beetle, and the sound of an owl from the church tower. This owl—a “moping,” secret, solitary ruler over the churchyard since ancient times—strikes an ominous note and protests that the poet is challenging its reign. With these descriptions, Gray creates the backdrop for his melancholy reflections about eternal truths.
In the next four stanzas (lines 13 to 28), Gray uses the churchyard scene to invoke important images: the strength of the elms, death as symbolized by the graves, and the comfort provided by the yews shading bodies that sleep. The poet begins by reflecting that death for the humble and lower class means a cessation of life’s simple pleasures: waking up to the songs of birds, sharing life with a wife and children, and enjoying hard and productive work. Gray reflects not on the untimely death of young people but on the death that comes after a normal life span.
In the next four stanzas (lines 29 to 44), the poet addresses the upper classes—those with ambition, grandeur, power, nobility, and pride—and exhorts them not to mock the poor for their simplicity or for not having elaborate statues on their graveyard memorials. He tells the living upper classes (perhaps the people Gray envisions as his readers) that ultimately it does not matter what glory they achieve or how elaborate a tombstone they will have. They will die just like the poor.
The eight stanzas (lines 45 to 76) that follow provide the central message of the poem: The poor are born with the same natural abilities as members of the upper classes. Who can say what humble people might have accomplished in the great world had they not been constrained by their condition and their innate powers not been frozen by “Chill Penury.” Gray implies that the innocence and beauty of these souls, wasted in their isolated rural environment, and resembling hidden deserts and ocean caves, could have flourished in better circumstances:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
The churchyard graves may also contain the remains of a person who had the ability to become a great scholar, a generous national leader, or a man who could have been a great poet but is in the end no more than a “mute inglorious Milton.” Gray goes on to speculate, however, that poverty may have prevented some dead men from doing not good but evil; now death has made them (unlike Oliver Cromwell) “guiltless” of shedding blood; they have not been able to slaughter, to refuse mercy, to lie, or to wallow in luxury and pride. Far from the “ignoble strife” of the great world, the village people have led “sober” and “noiseless” lives. Gray implies that, even though the village dead have accomplished nothing in the world, on balance they may be morally superior to their social betters.
Gray returns to the churchyard in the next section (lines 77 to 92), remarking on the graves’ simple markers with their badly spelled inscriptions, names, and dates. Some bear unpolished verses or consoling biblical texts; some are decorated with “shapeless sculpture.” Gray is touched that such grave markers show the humanity these dead people share with all men and women (including, by implication, the famous who took paths of glory). Those who remain can sense that the dead “cast one long lingering look” back on what they were leaving and were comforted by at least one loved one. Gray reflects that the voice of general human nature can be heard crying from these graves. In the last line of this section, Gray reflects that what he has learned will apply to himself and his readers: The “wonted fires” of his life and those of his readers will continue to burn in the ashes of all graves.
This more personal line provides a transition to the next six stanzas (lines 93-116), where it seems (the grammar is confusing) that Gray is addressing himself when he writes:
For thee, who mindful of the unhonoured deadDost in these lines their artless tale relate,If chance, by lonely contemplation led,Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate
Gray imagines an old farmer, who is described as a “hoary-headed swain,” replying to this question in lines 98 to 116. The farmer’s story describes Gray as a man who does not fit into either of the classes described earlier; he is neither a poor man nor a man of noble achievement. He is a wanderer, a man who vigorously meets the sun at dawn, yet later lies by a favorite tree and gazes listlessly at a brook. He mutters his fancies, resembling a madman or a hopeless lover. He is everything that Gray’s contemporaries thought a poet should be—a man of exquisite sensibility, unfit for the world’s work, meditative, and sad.
The farmer recounts that he saw the poet’s funeral procession to a church, presumably the one where the poem is set. He does not seem to have helped arrange the funeral nor, unlike the reader, can he read the epitaph that concludes the poem (Gray may be indicating that the farmer’s social class is not that of the poet and the reader). Perhaps Gray, in indicating that the poet chose to be buried where people of his class are not usually buried, intended to reinforce that the poem’s theme applies to all humankind.
In the three stanzas of the epitaph (lines 117 to 128), Gray speaks of his grave being “upon the lap of Earth” and not inside the church. He accords himself modest praise and justifies his life as worthwhile. Despite his “humble birth,” he was well educated. Although some may consider the poet’s natural melancholy a disadvantage, he himself probably thought it the source of his poetic temperament. Gray describes himself as generous and sincere, for which his reward was not worldly fame or fortune (the “paths of glory”) but heavenly “recompense,” undoubtedly the “friend” mentioned in line 124. The epitaph concludes by telling the reader not to ask more about the poet’s virtues and frailties but to leave him to God.
“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” moves from a meditation in a particular place upon the graves of the poor to a reflection on the mortality of all humankind and on some of the benefits of being constrained by poverty. The poem alludes to the wish of all people not to die and to the ways in which each is remembered after death. Gray concludes by imagining his own death and how he hopes to be remembered. If this progression of thought is not entirely logical, it is all the more understandable. One reason for the long popularity of Gray’s elegy lies in the universal chord he managed to strike not only with the thoughts he expressed but, perhaps even more important, with the progression he gave those thoughts. Beyond that, the poem contains some of the most striking lines of English poetry.