Context: At the opening of his poem Gray depicts the quiet twilight atmosphere of a rural churchyard in England. He notes the tolling of the curfew bell, the herd of cattle going to be milked, the ploughman weary with having marched behind his team and plow all day, the fading light in the west, the buzz of a beetle close by, and the tinkling of sheep-bells in the distance. He then turns his attention to the graves about him, in which lie the previous generations of the neighboring population, each like a monk in "his narrow cell." The poet notes that no historian or biographer has given an account of these humble people, even though they lived as useful lives as more famous persons. He asks the reader to remember that these unknown men had wives and children they loved, had hearths which gave them contentment after a hard day's work, and that these men struggled to make a living from the surrounding fields, meadows, and woods. We should not, he comments, "hear with a disdainful smile,/ The short and simple annals of the poor." He writes of the lowly but honest dead with affection:
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mold'ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell forever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!