Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

  • Thomas Gray began to compose "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" after the death of his friend Richard West in 1742.
  • The poem follows in a long tradition of English elegies and exemplifies the elegiac stanza form: quatrains of iambic pentameter in an abab rhyme scheme. This stately and supple form suits Gray's pensive mode and captures the rolling landscape of the poem's setting.
  • Unlike the typical elegy, Gray's poem laments a number of commoners' deaths. This choice is consonant with its democratic ethic and its suggestion that the poor deserve to be remembered as well as the rich.

Analysis

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1161

Thomas Gray began to write “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in 1742, shortly after the death of Gray’s friend Richard West, and published it in 1751. An elegy is loosely defined as a formal meditation on death and is often written to memorialize an individual, as in Milton’s “Lycidas.” Gray’s elegy, however, is a broader meditation on humankind’s mortality and considers the memorialization of life after death. Gray’s version of the elegy gives the name to the elegiac stanza form, which is composed of quatrains of iambic pentameter that align to an abab rhyme scheme. Earlier elegies in English literature include the Old English poem “The Wanderer” (900 CE), The Book of the Duchess (1370) by Geoffrey Chaucer, and “Lycidas” (1638) by John Milton, a pastoral elegy memorializing the loss of Milton’s friend Edward King.

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Gray’s “Elegy” exhibits a regular meter and consists of thirty-two stanzas, with Gray’s typically rich use of alliteration, consonance, imagery, personification, allusion, and archaisms—that is, vocabulary designed to evoke the past. The “Elegy” was so popular that, on the night before the English defeated the French at Quebec in 1759, the commander of the English forces, General James Wolfe, is reputed to have said, “I would rather have been the author of that piece than beat the French tomorrow.” That anecdote may be apocryphal, but it does capture the poem’s popularity.

In stanzas 1–5, Gray describes the rural English landscape in his evocative depiction of the graveyard and its surrounding at close of day, beginning with a scene that would resonate with anyone familiar with rural villages in England:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way.

Each line is an encapsulated image of tranquility, and there are no enjambed lines to carry one line to the next. This is an effective way to create three distinct but related images that appeal to the senses of sound and sight. Gray makes a subtle nod to the past when William the Conqueror required a bell to be rung in each village signaling that each householder should put out his fire and retire for the evening, a custom still followed in many rural villages in eighteenth-century England. Like the tolling bell in John Donne’s “No Man is an Island,” Gray’s bell connotes and symbolizes the death of an individual while enriching his depiction of pastoral life. Gray uses alliteration skillfully in the last line: “the plowman homeward plods his weary way.” This allows the line to roll gently off the tongue and mirror the rolling landscape (described by the Anglo-Saxon word “lea”) surrounding the graveyard. The diction, primarily Anglo-Saxon, enhances the depiction of an older England.

An unusual element for an elegy is introduced in stanzas 8–18 when Gray shifts his exploration from the pastoral life of the rural villagers to the contrasts between the simple rural life and the complex, shallow life symbolized by attributes—ambition and grandeur—that one associates with the wealthy and powerful. Gray points out that the villagers’ modest lives and the lives characterized by grandeur and ambition share the same fate:

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Whatever one’s place is on the Great Chain of Being, a popular metaphor in eighteenth-century English philosophy to describe one’s position in relation to the rest of God’s creatures, the plowman plodding his way, as well as those who travel the “paths of glory,” are made equal in death. Their respective poverty or wealth is irrelevant with respect to the one thing they have in common: mortality.

Gray elaborates this argument when he explores the nature of the villagers who rest among the rustic monuments and tombstones of the graveyard. Although the rich and powerful look down upon the common villagers and their “rude” memorials, he reminds them that, among the dead, are

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

“Celestial fire” may suggest a poet whose unpenned verses will never be heard. As the poet argues in the next stanza, knowledge is denied to commoners, because “Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage.” That is, absolute poverty kept them from achieving goals that the wealthy have within their reach. Gray then alludes to figures who have achieved greatness in politics (John Hampden) and literature (Milton). These lines also point to “Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.” The allusion to Cromwell is intriguingly ambiguous because it can be read to mean either that Cromwell is guiltless for his violent role in the English Civil War and as a signatory of the death warrant of Charles I or that one of commoners could have risen to Cromwell’s position but would have been nobler than Cromwell and, by comparison, “guiltless.”

In the final sections of the elegy, Gray meditates on the villagers’ need to be remembered and memorialized, even if their memorials are rude and unadorned. These passages express the human need to remain in the consciousness of those still living: “on some fond breast the parting soul relies, / Some pious drops the closing eye requires.” Gray’s poem suggests that people of all stations in life need to know that someone regrets their passing and holds them in memory. Gray’s speaker also meditates on his own life as a poet and his concern about how he will be remembered. He uses the persona of an old villager to comment on the life of the village poet (Gray’s speaker and perhaps his stand-in), whose life is spent in isolation:

Now dropping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.

This fictional situation arguably allows Gray to recount his own existence as a poet and create the epitaph he hopes will memorialize his life.

In the epitaph for the village poet that concludes the poem, Gray describes the poet as “A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown,” a sentiment he has used to describe the rural villagers. But he also notes that “Melancholy mark’d him for her own,” by which he means a poetic sensibility: not merely sadness but a sensitivity that sets him apart from the villagers and indeed from most of humankind. This sensibility leads him to dictate how he wishes to be remembered by posterity:

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode.

In other words, his poetry speaks for itself. In death, he is untouched by the world’s reckoning of his skills and failures, because he has traveled the path of all humankind and is now in “the bosom of his Father and God,” beyond the reach of all except in memory.

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