illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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What characteristics of Romanticism are evident in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

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Some characteristics of Romanticism in the poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" include a natural and isolated setting, an appreciation for ordinary life, and a focus on the speaker's emotional response.

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Thomas Gray lived and wrote during the neoclassical era of English literature, the period preceding the Romantic era, but scholars and readers have found certain Romantic elements in Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."

One common characteristic of Romantic literature is its placement in a pastoral setting. As the poem opens, there is a "lowing herd" of cattle wandering through the "lea." The final plowman finishes his day's work and heads home, and the speaker is left alone with his thoughts in this rustic farmland setting. Another characteristic of Romantic literature is a celebration of individualism, so the speaker's solitude further demonstrates the Romantic mode.

The poem focuses on the simple and ordinary life. Indeed, rather than describe the tombs of famous figures, the speaker commemorates deceased commoners, finding a nobility in "the short and simple annals of the poor." This attention to ordinary life and common scenes is another quality often associated with Romantic literature, particularly the work of William Wordsworth.

Finally, Romantic literature is often an examination of the speaker's emotions, and this poem overflows with a sense of melancholy that pervades the speaker's soul. As he considers his own eventual death and the placement of his own tombstone, the speaker considers the brevity of life and the cyclical nature of this pastoral setting—one day, a passerby will stop to examine his tombstone.

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What are some neo-classical features in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

Neo-classicism was the dominant form in 18th-century English poetry. Such poems, often associated with the work of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, were based on literary models provided by Greece and Rome. Since a gentleman's education in this period emphasized learning Greek and Latin, most schoolboys would be quite familiar with poems of antiquity written in Latin and Greek, just as we today are familiar with movies from earlier eras, such as The Wizard of Oz (the 1930s, however—the period when The Wizard of Oz was released—are clearly much closer to our own times than the Classical era to the 18th-century English.) The neo-classical poems 18th-century people wrote in imitation of the Greeks and Romans  are generally more intellectual than emotional, and characterized by measured verses in regular rhymes.

While Gray does not address his elegy to a single individual, which is the standard Classical form, this poem falls into the category of "lacrinae rerum" or "tears of (or for) things." The phrase derives from the Latin poet Virgil's Aeneid, in which the hero looks at a mural depicting deaths in the Trojan war, and is moved to tears. In Gray's poem, the poet feels sad as he looks at a country graveyard, where obscure people are buried. 

In the neo-classical mode, the tone and the rhyme scheme of a poem are measured and even, and the stance is intellectual rather than given to emotional outburst or breaks in the cadence. The Gray poem waxes philosophical:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene, 
         The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear: 
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen, 
         And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
The poem communicates sadness, but the poet is distant from his subjects: it is sad that people die unmourned, but that's the way life is in the larger scheme of nature.
 
The best way to understand the difference in temperament between a neo-classically influenced poem like Gray's and a full-blown Romantic poem is to read some of Wordsworth's work in Lyrical Ballads, such as "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,"  to contrast the Romantic's outbursts with Gray's calm verses.
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What are some neo-classical features in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

In his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," Thomas Gray employs the neo-classical use of personification in his poem of strict iambic pentameter with eloquent classical diction.  There is a compliance and conformity to the classical form of an elegy as Gray gives his individual estimate of the world, which is, however, a Romantic expression.

The pace of iambic pentameter [an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable 5 times--ta dum, ta dum, ta dum, ta dum, ta dum] is dignified, and Gray makes skillful use of monosyllabic words and long vowels in his elegy.  The following stanza is an example:

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,/Their sober wishes never learned to stray;/Along the cool, sequestered vale of life/They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Personification is also a neo-classical trait which Gray utilizes:

The boast of hearldry, the pomp of power,/And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,/Awaits alike the inevitable hour:/The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Of course, this elegy which laments the dead, evokes the classical idea of momento mori, a Latin phrase meaning "Remember that you must die."  Death comes to all, the exalted and the humble; Gray reflects upon the lives of the common people buried in the churchyard, lives spent doing labor with simple enjoyments at the end of the day.

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What are the romantic features that can be traced in Thomas Grays's Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard?

In Thomas Gray's "Elegy" there are numerous features common to the romantic period and romanticism.

Firstly is the prevalence of nature and its emphasis as being a place where meditation and deeply spiritual epiphanies occur. We look at the poem's imagery and we notice deeply sublime notions such as "drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds" and the "breezy call of incense-breathing morn."

We see the inevitability of death in the ninth stanza and much of the imagery changes to contemplate death and our mortality. As the poet stands in the sublimity of nature he is speculating on how there might very well be people similar to Milton and Cromwell reposing beneath his feet.

Mostly, it is an intimate meditation on our mortality. This tendency for meditation is so very common in most Romantic literature, especially its poetry.

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