illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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Places Discussed

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Last Updated on April 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792

When Thomas Gray was writing this poem, the world was going through a period of intellectual development that thinkers of the time dubbed the "Age of Enlightenment." The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that grew out of the great advances made by scientists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One key example which ended up having great influence on the Enlightenment was Sir Isaac Newton's theory of universal gravitation, which proposed laws that explained and predicted the behavior of matter in all circumstances everywhere. Newton published this theory in his book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687, and it marked a turning point in the history of science. At the same time, this idea of the power of rationalism was growing in the area of philosophy. Thinkers such as Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) took up the idea of rationalism, attempting to apply the methods of scientific inquiry to the field of philosophy; Descartes' famous statement "I think, therefore I am" represents his attempt to start with the one simple truth that he could be sure of about the world, which was that he himself existed. In political science, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) explored the interrelations of social interactions in such works as The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, and John Locke (1632-1704) explained human intelligence as being the sum of what is learned through experience, not the God-given right of a few.

By the start of the eighteenth century, intellectuals throughout the world were excited about the new Age of Enlightenment, which promised humanity new hope for controlling the world's problems. At first, though, the Enlightenment's enthusiasts were considered dangerous radicals. They rejected tradition that was not backed up with solid rational explanation, and tradition was the basis for most rulers'...

(This entire section contains 792 words.)

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political power. Royalty ruled by relation to previous rulers, and landowners feasted while peasants starved because of rights based on inheritance, but rationalism served to undermine such rights and to blur class distinctions. In particular, the Catholic Church, which had been a strong influence in European politics for centuries, was threatened by the skepticism of Enlightenment thinkers who felt society should be organized according to rational rather than religious principles. As religious explanations of the universe lost credibility to scientific explanations that were based on observation, the Church took a defensive position, jailing free thinkers for heresy when they published theories that contradicted church tradition. In earlier times, Galileo, for example, was imprisoned for supporting the Copernican heliocentric view of the solar system. In the early 1700s, the church clashed frequently with Enlightenment theorists who made even minor claims about the nature of man and society that could be considered heretical. By the middle of the century, when Thomas Gray wrote his "Elegy," Enlightenment rationality had gained enough public support to stand on its own. To some extent, the poem displays Enlightenment principles in the way that the speaker shows faith that the rural poor could be intelligent and successful if they had proper education, reflecting Locke's theory of the mind as a "blank slate" that is ready to grow. The pessimism he shows, though, regarding the potential for corruption if the poor were educated, is contrary to the standard Enlightenment optimism about the good that will result from education.

The high point for the Enlightenment was the American Revolution in 1776. This marked the beginning of a society based on rationality and fairness, not tradition. The basis for the American Revolution was that people living in North America would now be better able to decide what was best for them than a king living in England, reflecting a faith in the common person's ability to reason. The Declaration of Independence is a major philosophical work concerning the rights of human beings to determine their own fates. The end of the Enlightenment as an intellectual movement came soon after, however, with the French Revolution from 1789 to 1799. Like the revolution in America, the French Revolution was an attempt to let individuals control their own destinies, based on faith in reason, which Enlightenment thinkers had been advocating for nearly a hundred years. While the American Revolution created a new society, however, the French Revolution created chaos, a bloodbath of government suppression of revolutionaries and public executions of deposed government figures. In the end, the oppressive system of feudal land ownership was abolished, but only at the end of a bitter struggle that required both sides to focus their attention on jingoistic slogans. The ideal of rationality became lost with the emphasis on the rights of individuals and the belief that the simple, uncorrupt poor know better than the pampered rich. The Enlightenment gave way to the age of Romanticism, which emphasized an almost mystical belief in individuality and the goodness of nature.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291

1751: Benjamin Franklin, flying a kite in a thunderstorm with a key at the end of the string, discovered the fact that lightning behaves like electricity and flows through conductive material.

Today: Control of electricity is one of the fundamental principles of our society. Blackouts, when electricity becomes unavailable, create major disruptions.

1751: Whaling was an important part of the economy of the New England colonies, with more than sixty whaling ships trolling the water off the coast.

Today: Environmental organizations fight to protect the rights of endangered whale species, but the world has much less use for whale meat or for whale oil to light lamps.

1751: English theologian and evangelist John Wesley was travelling almost 5000 miles every year to spread the word about Christianity, founding the denomination known as Methodism.

Today: Methodism is recognized as one of the mainstream Protestant religions.

1751: Approximately one-fifth of the people in New England, which was to become America after the war for independence in 1776, were slaves.

1863: Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which made slavery illegal in the United States. It was not accepted in the South until after their defeat in the Civil War in 1865.

Today: Most of the world has laws against slavery, but there are still regular scattered reports of people, usually immigrants and females, who are forced into labor against their wills.

1751: Denis Diderot published the first volume of the first modern encyclopedia, his Encyclopaedie, ou Dictionaire raisonne des sciences, des arts et des metiers, par une societe de gens de lettres. The work eventually spanned eleven volumes, with the last volume finished in 1772.

Today: Many established encyclopedias, as well as uncollected information that is compiled into encyclopedias, is available from a computer terminal from anywhere on the globe via the Internet.


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