Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Historical and Social Context
by Thomas Gray

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard book cover
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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

(Poetry for Students)

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' 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...

(The entire section is 1,388 words.)