Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is by far Thomas Gray’s most popular poem and is probably still one of the most popular poems in the English language. It was an immediate success and required five printings in 1751—the year of its publication—alone. There have been more than two hundred English and American imitations and parodies, and the poem has been translated into at least eighteen languages, including Armenian, Czechoslovakian, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, and Icelandic.
The poem can best be understood in relation to two poetic traditions that were prevalent in the first half of the eighteenth century. The first of these is the elegiac tradition. An elegy is a sustained and formal poem setting forth the poet’s meditations on death or another solemn theme. The meditation is often occasioned by the death of a particular person, but may be simply a contemplation of death or the expression of a solemn mood. Gray wrote his elegy in what came to be called (after the publication and imitation of his poem) the “elegiac stanza,” or the iambic pentameter quatrain rhyming abab.
The second tradition is the “landscape” tradition, in which the poet embodies his metaphysical or philosophical musings in the countryside or in nature. A subdivision of landscape poetry, the “graveyard school,” tries to achieve an atmosphere of pleasing melancholy by contemplating death and immortality—usually in a graveyard at night. Graveyard poets were fond of dwelling on owls, hearses, palls, and other images of death. While Gray’s poem may be said to belong to the graveyard school, it is by no means typical, for he has muted many of the more sensational elements.
The poem may be divided into four sections. The first four stanzas establish the solemn meditative tone and place the speaker in a rustic graveyard at twilight. Stanzas 5 and 6 describe the events and activities in which the dead buried there are no longer able to participate. Stanzas 7 to 23 admonish the great not to view the poor with contempt, suggest that the poor, too, might have been accomplished and powerful, and assert that all men are equal in death. In stanzas 24 to 29, the poet addresses himself, imagines himself observed by an inhabitant of the village, and finally describes his own death and burial. The poem closes with the speaker’s epitaph, which holds out the hope of an orthodox heaven.
There are many reasons why Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard has enjoyed sustained success. One is that the poem seems to elevate and defend the lives of the poor against the contempt of the mighty. Do not “mock their useful toil,” the poet exhorts. He asks, Who knows what the poor people buried in the churchyard might have accomplished had they been born to wealth and power? Perhaps in this “ne-glected” country spot lie people who might have been able to sway “the rod of empire” or create beautiful art. In the end, all men, regardless of their stations in life, are equal before death:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,Awaits alike the inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.