illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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So you’re going to teach “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Thomas Gray’s poem has been a mainstay in English classes for generations. Whether it’s the first time or the hundredth time you’ve taken students through this classic English poem, these teaching tips will help ensure that the experience is rewarding for everyone, including you. Teaching Gray’s elegy, especially from a new perspective, will give students insight into the literary traditions of eighteenth-century neoclassicism and the early influence of romanticism, which became the dominant literary philosophy in the nineteenth century. This guide highlights the text's most salient aspects to keep in mind before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1751
  • Approximate Word Count: 985
  • Author: Thomas Gray
  • Country of Origin: England
  • Genre: Lyric Poetry, Pastoral Poetry, Graveyard School of Poetry
  • Literary Period: 18th-Century Pre-Romanticism
  • Conflict: Person vs. Society, Person vs. Mortality
  • Narration: First-Person
  • Setting: Country Churchyard Near a 19th-Century English Village, Twilight as Darkness Falls
  • Structure: Iambic Pentameter, ABAB Rhyme Scheme (Elegiac Stanzas)
  • Mood: Melancholy, Philosophical, Contemplative

Texts That Go Well With “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

“A Country Life” by Katherine Philips extols the virtues of living a simple, happy country life, removed from the corruptions of materialism and worldly ambition. In this work of 17th-century English pastoral poetry, the poet’s description of life in a rustic setting is similar in some ways to Gray’s depiction of it. 

“A Nocturnal Reverie” by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, features a first-person narrator who describes the natural word as day becomes night. A work of pre-Romanticism, the poem celebrates the beauty and serenity to be found in nature and describes it in a reflective tone similar to Gray’s in his description of the setting in the first few stanzas of his elegy. 

“Because I could not stop for Death” is a lyrical poem by Emily Dickinson. Dickinson’s first-person narrator meets a personification of death: a man who takes her away in a carriage. Although the poem differs from Gray’s elegy in setting and atmosphere and does not focus on social classes, readers will find similar themes regarding the pleasures of being alive, the inevitability of dying, and the eternal nature of death. 

“Death, be not proud” is one of English poet John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. While acknowledging the inevitability of death, Donne rejects the idea that it should be feared, for it is not eternal. An apostrophe that personifies death, the poem’s themes generally differ from those in Gray’s elegy; however, the final stanza of “The Epitaph” in Gray’s elegy expresses a similar spiritual belief in life after death. 

The Complaint: or, Night Thoughts by Edward Young is a foundational work in the English Graveyard School of poetry, the genre of Gray’s elegy. Consisting of nearly 10,000 lines, the didactic monologue is structured in nine parts (“Nights”), each examining a specific aspect of death or the experience of dying. 

“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is a 19th-century pastoral elegy by American poet Walt Whitman that mourns the death of President Lincoln. While expressing profound personal and national grief for the president’s death, without mentioning Lincoln by name, Whitman also meditates on death and the cycle of life and death in the universe.

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History of the Text