English History: “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” features allusions to famous men in English history whose lives and achievements contrast sharply with those of the dead buried in the churchyard. Through the contrast, Gray emphasizes the effects of poverty on those in their graves whose potential for greatness was never fulfilled.
- Hampden (John Hampden; 1594–1643) was an English soldier, politician, and statesman who defied the crown in resisting the efforts of King Charles I to rule England without the consent of Parliament. The conflict between the king and Parliament led directly to the English Civil War of 1642. While fighting against the king’s army in the Battle of Chalgrove Field, Hampden was grievously wounded and died several days later.
- Milton (John Milton; 1608–1674) is a towering figure in 17th-century English literature, a poet most well-known for his masterpiece, the epic poem Paradise Lost. Critics generally contend that the artistic achievement in Paradise Lost makes Milton the equal of Chaucer and Shakespeare.
- Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), a soldier and member of Parliament, fought against King Charles I in the English Civil War of 1642. In the Battle of Naseby in 1645, Cromwell commanded the army that defeated the king’s major forces, leading to the king’s being captured and beheaded. After the destruction of the monarchy, Cromwell led the new government as Lord Protector of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland; during his time in power, he tolerated no dissent and mounted numerous bloody military campaigns against those who opposed him. After Cromwell’s death, England became a monarchy once again under Charles II.
Greek Culture and Mythology: Reflecting a convention of works of neoclassicism, which often modeled the classic literature of ancient Greece and Rome, the poem features an allusion to Greek mythology.
- Gray refers to a Muse, an allusion to a Greek goddess. In Greek mythology, there are nine Muses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne; the Muses are the goddesses of inspiration in literature, science, and the arts.
- The allusion, however, is figurative, as the “Muse” in Gray’s elegy is “unlettered,” indicating that he is referring to someone in the village who is uneducated.