Gray's "Elegy" as a Reflection of Social Conscience
The most common interpretation of Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is that it is an expression of sympathy and support for those who have the misfortune to be without money or social prestige. When critics do not approach it from this angle, they almost always look at it as a broader philosophical statement about how fortune in this world ends up being no help to the dead, an interpretation that rests almost entirely upon line 36, "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." These are both pertinent ideas that Gray does cover, but they're fairly obvious ideas to readers today, and either could have been adequately dispatched in a poem a third as long. We have to question how obvious such ideas about social rank would have been in the feudal monarchy of Gray's England, circa 1750. If Gray was a thinker ahead of his time, then the ideas that we take for granted may have been unheard of to his peers.
It would be almost impossible to believe that people before Gray wished anything but the best for victims of misfortune. After all, as the word itself indicates, misfortune has two significant characteristics: it is bad, and it happens because of luck or chance, fortune. By its basic definition, people with bad luck cannot be blamed, and that makes them innocent sufferers. To that extent, Gray seems to have brought nothing new to the question of human relations, just the circular argument that those who do not deserve misfortune do not deserve it. The fact is, though, that the issue has never been as clear-cut as that. There is the question of whether the poor, such as the struggling farmers that Gray talks about, have been cast their lot by random chance, or whether they might not actually be collecting exactly what they deserve.
We see this same question arise just as clearly, if not more so, in contemporary America. In our two-party system, the general attitude toward poverty and its related problems, such as poor education and health, shifts from one side of the spectrum to the other every generation or so. One party is dominant during a time when the general public believes that the poor are neglected, and as a result spending for social programs will increase; a few years later, the prevailing mood will hold that the poor are coddled and therefore lack the will to raise themselves out of poverty, and spending then decreases. The issue seems to balance on the question of just how much the people involved are responsible for their own positions as part of the underclass, and therefore how much sympathy they deserve.
"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" appeared at one of those cultural moments when change was in the air but had not quite arrived. In a piece celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the "Elegy"'s publication, Carl J. Weaver provided an inventory of "the originality of Gray's democratic sympathy": the American Revolution was twenty-five years away, and the French Revolution forty; it was to be twenty years until Oliver Goldsmith would write of "a bold peasantry, their country's pride," and still another twenty-five after that until Robert Burns framed the simplicity of the democratic spirit with "A man's a man, for a' that." Ideas of equality may be at the core of the society we live in, but they were exceptional when Gray wrote.
This apparently was the reason why he felt the need to go to such lengths to help his readers know the simple country people he was writing about. They were not the lazy, stupid brutes his readers would have to believe they were in order to believe that they deserved to live in poverty and obscurity. They worked hard at "useful toil," their children loved them, and they asked for little in return. These were not easy people to ignore, by Gray's standard: their virtues should have made them stand out as society's finest, and he writes with bitterness that they were left to rot in obscurity in tiny churchyards while men and women not nearly as useful or loved rested...
(The entire section is 17,030 words.)