Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
- Thomas Gray began to compose "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" after the death of his friend Richard West in 1742.
- The poem follows in a long tradition of English elegies and exemplifies the elegiac stanza form: quatrains of iambic pentameter in an ABAB rhyme scheme. This stately and supple form suits Gray's pensive mode and captures the rolling landscape of the poem's setting.
- Unlike the typical elegy, Gray's poem laments a number of commoners' deaths. This choice is consonant with its democratic ethic and its suggestion that the poor deserve to be remembered as well as the rich.
Thomas Gray began to write “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in 1742, shortly after the death of Gray’s friend Richard West, and published it in 1751. An elegy is loosely defined as a formal meditation on death and is often written to memorialize an individual, as in Milton’s “Lycidas.” Gray’s elegy, however, is a broader meditation on humankind’s mortality and considers the memorialization of life after death. Gray’s version of the elegy gives the name to the elegiac stanza form, which is composed of quatrains of iambic pentameter that align to an ABAB rhyme scheme. Earlier elegies in English literature include the Old English poem “The Wanderer” (900 CE), The Book of the Duchess (1370) by Geoffrey Chaucer, and “Lycidas” (1638) by John Milton, a pastoral elegy memorializing the loss of Milton’s friend Edward King.
Gray’s “Elegy” exhibits a regular meter and consists of thirty-two stanzas, with Gray’s typically rich use of alliteration, consonance, imagery, personification, allusion, and archaisms—that is, vocabulary designed to evoke the past. The “Elegy” was so popular that, on the night before the English defeated the French at Quebec in 1759, the commander of the English forces, General James Wolfe, is reputed to have said, “I would rather have been the author of that piece than beat the French tomorrow.” That anecdote may be apocryphal, but it does capture the poem’s popularity.
In stanzas 1–5, Gray describes the rural English landscape in his evocative depiction of the graveyard and its surrounding at close of day, beginning with a scene that would resonate with anyone familiar with rural villages in England:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way.
Each line is an encapsulated image of tranquility, and there are no enjambed lines to carry one line to the next. This is an effective way to create three distinct but related images that appeal to the senses of sound and sight. Gray makes a subtle nod to the past when William the Conqueror required a bell to be rung in each village signaling that each householder should put out his fire and retire for the evening, a custom still followed in many rural villages in eighteenth-century England. Like the tolling bell in John Donne’s “No Man is an Island,” Gray’s bell connotes and symbolizes the death of an individual while enriching his depiction of pastoral life. Gray uses alliteration skillfully in the last line: “the plowman homeward plods his weary way.” This allows the line to roll gently off the tongue and mirror the rolling landscape (described by the Anglo-Saxon word “lea”) surrounding the graveyard. The diction, primarily Anglo-Saxon, enhances the depiction of an older England.
An unusual element for an elegy is introduced in stanzas 8–18 when Gray shifts his exploration from the pastoral life of the rural villagers to the contrasts between the simple rural life and the complex, shallow life symbolized by attributes—ambition and grandeur—that one associates with the wealthy and powerful. Gray points out that the villagers’ modest lives and the lives characterized by grandeur and ambition share the same fate:
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory...
(The entire section is 4,315 words.)