History of the Text
Publication History: In 1746, while living in the quiet English village of Stoke Poges, Thomas Gray wrote the first draft of “An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard,” which was published in 1751 as a longer work. In subsequent publications, the poem was titled “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The church and graveyard at Stoke Poges were most likely the inspiration for the setting of the elegy, and the death of Gray’s friend, Richard West, in 1742 is generally believed to have prompted Gray to write it. Gray’s body of poetry is limited to a few major works, due in part to the personal conflicts and tragedies he experienced in his life and to his obsessive perfectionism regarding his writing. Nevertheless, he is recognized as a major poet in English literature, with some critics contending that only Alexander Pope is a more significant literary figure in the 18th century. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” secured Gray’s place among his literary peers and became one of the most popular and celebrated poems in the canon of English literature.
Pre-Romanticism in English Literature: Neoclassicism was the predominant literary trend in 18th-century English literature. Characterized by a restrained and formal tone, elevated language, parallel constructions, and frequent allusions to Greek and Roman mythology, neoclassicism emphasized reason, harmony, and wit over emotion. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” features numerous characteristics of neoclassicism, but it is distinguished by certain poetic elements that anticipate the rise of Romanticism in English literature at the end of the 1700s. The diction and syntax in Gray’s elegy are sophisticated and polished, and the text includes an allusion to Greek mythology—all reflections of neoclassicism. However, the elegy’s emotional tone, expression of personal longing, celebration of common people, and idealized descriptions of nature are signature characteristics of Romanticism, which would become the predominant literary trend in 19th-century English poetry.