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...
(The entire section is 538 words.)