Context: The "Elegy" was written to commemorate the humble dead, who are buried in the churchyard; the highborn are customarily buried in the church itself. The churchyard referred to was that of Stoke Poges, and the scene as described by Gray has apparently remained unaltered until this day. The poet sets his description in the evening, when the day's work is done; morning, with all of its activity, will never come to these people again. These folk lived lives of honest toil, seasoned by homely joys. Those who live on a higher social stratum have no reason to look down upon these simple folk, as their end will be the same: the paths of glory lead but to the grave. Penury kept these humble folk ignorant, but perhaps some of them may have had great potentialities that were never realized. Perhaps a Milton, who was forced into muteness by his situation in life, lies here. And as their opportunities for doing good were restricted, so were their chances for committing crimes; they did not wade through blood to thrones. In quietness they lived their lives far from the madding crowd, but their rude memorials still exist in the churchyard.
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev'n in our ashes live their wonted fires.
For thee, who mindful of th' unhonored dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,
Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
"Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.
There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by."