Context: Gray's poem teaches that death comes to all men, the poor as well as the rich, the unknown as well as the famous. The poem begins by noting the twilight environment of a country churchyard, especially the sounds of evening. Then the attention of the poet and, of course, the reader turns to the graves of the simple people, the preceding generations of the peasants of the countryside, who are buried there. The poet notes how the unknown dead worked and lived, spending their days in toil and their evenings in simple pleasure. But, he adds, we should not pass them by, mocking their simple lives or disdaining their records, those "short and simple annals." The poet says that famous persons, whose lives are recorded in history at greater length, come alike and inevitably to death; that "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." Later in the poem Gray says that, if but given the chance, these almost unknown dead might have been heroes of their times:
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear, with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem'ry o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.