illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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Forms and Devices

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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).

Literary Style

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"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is written in heroic quatrains. A quatrain is a four-line stanza. Heroic quatrains rhyme in an abab pattern and are written in iambic pentameter. An iamb is a poetic foot consisting of one unstressed and one stressed syllable, as in the phrase "the world." Pentameter simply means that there are five feet in each line. Consider, for instance, the first line of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard":

The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day.

When we scan the line, or identify its stresses, it appears as follows:

The Cur / few tolls / the knell / of part / ing day.

Try reading the line aloud: its regular, steady rhythm helps to creates a calm and quiet mood—one appropriate to the meditative nature of this poem.

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Key Ideas and Commentary


Historical and Social Context