Context: Gray's poem is about the little-known people of the English countryside, as opposed to the famous figures of English history, the men and women who are buried in such places as Westminster Abbey. Had the fortunes of the humbler people been different, says the poet, these poor, simple, but honest persons buried in the obscure country churchyard might have done great deeds, found fame during life, and a place in the nation's history books. Here in a humble churchyard lie those who were kept from being great only by poverty and a lack of education. Here, says the poet, may lie some man who fought against a petty tyrant of the countryside in much the same way and with the same courage as John Hampden opposed King Charles I himself. Here may lie some man who, given the education, might have written as great poetry as John Milton. Or, adds Gray, here may lie a man who, given the chance, might have led his countrymen in a civil war, as did Oliver Cromwell in the 1640's, spilling the blood of commoner, aristocrat, and king. But, Gray comments, if the chance for fame of these people was circumscribed narrowly, so was their opportunity to commit crimes:
Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breastThe little tyrant of his fields withstood;Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.Th' applause of list'ning senates to command,The threats of pain and ruin to despise,To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,And read their hist'ry in a nation's eyes,Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib'd aloneTheir growing virtues, but their crimes confin'd;Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,Or heap the shrine of Luxury and PrideWith incense kindled at the Muse's flame.