Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Analysis

Thomas Gray

The Poem (Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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.

Forms and Devices (Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Gray achieves the dignified, grave, and stately tone of his poem through a number of poetic techniques. First, the heroic quatrain—four lines of iambic pentameter rhyming abab—sometimes called the “elegiac stanza,” combined with monosyllabic words and long vowels, produces exactly the effect of quiet melancholy which is characteristic of both the elegy and graveyard poetry: “The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea.” Onomatopoeia—the use of words that by their sound suggest their meanings—quietly sets the background in the country setting: The beetle wheels his “droning” flight; the owl is “moping”; the bells of the sheep are “drowsy tinklings.”

Alliteration, the repetition of identical consonant sounds, is used to link words that the poet wants the reader to associate closely: “No children run to lisp their sire’s return” (line 23). Although, strictly speaking, alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds, Gray associates the l sounds of children and lisp and the r sounds in children, run, their, sire, and return, and he connects the s of lisp with sires.

Another device Gray uses to heighten and emphasize emotional impact is parallel structure. Sometimes he will balance the first half of a line with the second half; in line 33, for example, “The boast of heraldry” balances the second half, “the pomp of pow’r.” In other stanzas, Gray repeats sentence structures every other line to achieve coherence, emphasis, and intensity. For example, in stanza 11, Gray asks two rhetorical questions which begin with “Can”: The question “Can storied urn or animated bust ” begins on line 41, and “Can Honor’s voice provoke ” begins on line 43.

To these and other technical devices Gray adds his splendid talent for writing striking phrases that express much in a few words. Indeed, this poem has contributed many famous phrases to the English language: “The short and simple annals of the poor” (line 32), “The paths of glory lead but to the grave” (line 36), and “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife” (line 73).

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Country churchyard

Country churchyard. Cemetery adjoining an unnamed rural or village church. There is no way of knowing which particular country churchyard Thomas Gray was looking at or thinking about when he composed this poem. It is known, however, that he spent most of his life quietly as a professor at Cambridge University in Cambridge, England. He traveled in the summer to Scotland and the Lake District in northwest England, and as a youth he traveled to Europe. A churchyard scene such as he describes in the poem would be familiar to most Europeans.

Place is significant in Gray’s elegy. The poem opens with a peaceful, evocative description of a country churchyard at close of day. The twilight scene is simple but unmistakable. The elm and yew trees shade the graves where the common people of the town have been laid for their final rest. The wealthy folk are buried in the walls and floors of the church; their graves have statuary or beautiful decorations.

The poet muses on the lives of the persons buried there. He pictures their lives as simple farmers and housewives. The chief poignancy of the poem lies in the poet’s suggestions that some of the people buried in the churchyard may not have fulfilled the potential of their lives because of their poverty and rural isolation. Despite any talent they may have possessed, their lives were very much tied to the place in which they lived. Though they were unlearned, they had joy in their simple yet productive lives and did not look forward to death.

In the right environment some might have turned out to be great poets, like John Milton, or civic leaders, like John Hampden. He concludes the poem by considering what people may say of him when he joins those buried in the churchyard.

Historical Context

When Thomas Gray was writing this poem, the world was going through a period of intellectual development that thinkers of the time dubbed the...

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Literary Style

"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is written in heroic quatrains. A quatrain is a four-line stanza. Heroic quatrains rhyme in an abab...

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Compare and Contrast

1751: Benjamin Franklin, flying a kite in a thunderstorm with a key at the end of the string, discovered the fact that lightning...

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Topics for Further Study

Do you think the speaker of this poem is sentimentalizing the forgotten people in the country churchyard, or is he giving them the...

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Media Adaptations

J. Norton Publishers/Audio-Forum has produced an audiocassette entitled How Shelley Died; Elegy in a Country Churchyard: Two Lectures...

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What Do I Read Next?

The most authoritative edition of Gray's poetry is the edition originally published by the Oxford Press in 1966, entitled The Complete...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Arnold, Matthew, "Thomas Gray," in his Essays in Criticism, 2nd ser., The Macmillan Company, 1934, pp. 69-99....

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Bibliography (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Brady, Frank. “Structure and Meaning in Gray’s Elegy.” In From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, edited by Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. In his lucid and careful reading of Gray’s elegy, Brady stresses the appropriateness of the closing “epitaph.” (The book contains two other essays on the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”)

Brooks, Cleanth. “Gray’s Storied Urn.” In The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. In a celebrated and important close reading of the poem, Brooks argues that the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is rich in irony and implication. Essential reading for any interpreter of the work.

Lonsdale, Roger, ed. The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, Oliver Goldsmith. London: Longman, 1969. Lonsdale’s introduction to Gray’s elegy and his notes to the text are invaluable, especially on the difficulties of lines 93 to 96.

Sells, A. L. Lytton, assisted by Iris Lytton Sells. Thomas Gray: His Life and Works. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1980. This biography includes frequent references to Gray’s elegy and includes a lengthy discussion of the work. Sells believes that the epitaph refers to Richard West.

Weinfield, Henry. The Poet Without a Name: Gray’s “Elegy” and the Problem of History. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. A scholarly book that employs a variety of critical methods to establish the poem’s significance. Weinfield, who gives his own intricate reading of the work in chapter 3, considers the “thee” in line 93 to refer to all of humanity.