illustration of a country churchyward with a variety of gravestones

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1906

A Pastoral Setting and Simple Lives: The poem focuses initially on the lives of those buried in the cemetery near a church in the countryside. As the poem begins, Gray describes the beauty of nature in which they had lived and the simple graves in which they are buried. He then describes the joys of work and family they had experienced in life. As the elegy continues, Gray details the effects of poverty on their lives and draws conclusions regarding their having been poor. 

  • For discussion: Point out who is buried in the country churchyard: the “rude [uneducated] forefathers of the hamlet.” Establish that they had been hardworking farmers who led simple lives; never possessing wealth or accomplishing remarkable achievements, they lived and died unknown to the world at large. 
  • For discussion: What do the graves and their simple headstones suggest about those who are buried in the churchyard and about those who buried them? 
  • For discussion: In what ways were the daily lives of those buried in the churchyard meaningful and satisfying despite their poverty? How did poverty negatively impact their lives? Ironically, how did poverty protect them? 
  • For discussion: What do the implied metaphors in the following stanza suggest about the effects of poverty on their lives? 
Full many a gem of purest ray sereneThe dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, 
  • For discussion: How does the setting contribute to the elegy’s tone, atmosphere, and mood? 

The Inevitability of Death as Theme: A primary theme in the poem is that death awaits all who live, regardless of their station in life. Like the “short and simple annals of the poor,” the lives of the wealthy and powerful also will end. 

  • For discussion: Gray writes, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” How might the line be interpreted as suggesting the inevitability of death? Whose death does it address? 
  • For discussion: How does Gray suggest that all the trappings of a fine funeral and burial are ultimately insignificant? 

The Universal Experience of Dying as Theme: Another important theme is that those who are dying, regardless of their station in life, share a similar experience as their lives end. 

  • For discussion: Why would the dying, regardless of who they are, “cast one longing lingering look behind”? What do the words “longing” and “lingering” suggest? 
  • For discussion: What do the dying, regardless of who they are, need from those who love them? 
  • For discussion: Why are the headstones in the churchyard, with their “uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture” and misspelled words, as meaningful as the most elaborate epitaphs on a tomb? What universal human needs are fulfilled by both? 

Gray’s Self-Awareness and Acceptance of His Own Mortality: The focus of the elegy shifts to Gray himself with this passage in stanza 24: “For thee, who, mindful of the unhonored dead, / Dost in these lines their artless tale relate . . .” In the stanzas that follow, Gray imagines himself being remembered after his death by an old, white-haired farmer (“a hoary-headed swain”), who then describes Gray’s suddenly being absent in the countryside and his subsequent burial in the churchyard. In contemplating his own death, Gray expresses neither sadness nor despair, suggesting an acceptance of his own mortality. In writing his own epitaph to conclude the elegy—an epitaph presented as having been written by someone else—Gray describes exactly how he would like to be remembered; the epitaph is personal and specific to his life, devoid of platitudes or generalities. 

  • For discussion: In contemplating his own death, Gray imagines that he...

(This entire section contains 1906 words.)

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  • will be buried in the country churchyard, suggesting that is where he wants to be buried. As an educated person and an accomplished poet, why would he want to be buried among the poor and uneducated people he describes in the elegy? What does choosing to be buried in the country churchyard indicate about him? What does he value in life, and what does he reject? 
  • For discussion: Based on the description provided by the old farmer, how did Gray feel about the natural world? Where would he often choose to spend his days? What moods would sometimes overtake him? 
  • For discussion: What does Gray reveal about himself in “The Epitaph”? What kind of person does he seem to have been? 

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • Ask students to consider the atmosphere of the setting:
How is the setting described in the first three stanzas? How would being in this place at this hour feel? What are some specific words and phrases that create the atmosphere by appealing to the senses, primarily to sight and hearing? What are some examples of onomatopoeia that communicate specific sounds in the setting? How would you describe the sounds? What do they all have in common? 
  • Define for students the “heroic quatrain,” also known as the “elegiac stanza.” How do the stanzas in Gray’s elegy conform to the meter and rhyme scheme of the heroic quatrain? 
  • The poem is often interpreted as a work of social criticism. What aspects of his society does Gray criticize? How does poverty, lack of education, and lack of opportunity negatively impact society as a whole, as well as individual lives? 
  • Why has “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” remained one of the most popular poems in English literature? Why is it as relevant today as it was in 18th-century England? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Gray’s Diction and Syntax Are Unfamiliar: “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” features vocabulary words and syntax that may be unfamiliar to students, even to those who have encountered poetry before. 

  • What to do: Before teaching the poem, have students complete a vocabulary study of the more challenging words they will encounter in the text. Rather than giving students a list of vocabulary words, give them a handout with phrases from the text that contain the words, thus placing the words in context. Highlight or underline the vocabulary word in each phrase. 
  • What to do: Before teaching the poem, review the syntax and end-of-line punctuation in the first few stanzas. Point out that each stanza is a single sentence and that the single-sentence structure of the stanzas is followed throughout the poem. 
  • What to do: Have students select a stanza from another part of the poem and compare its syntax and end-of-line punctuation with the style of the first few stanzas. 

Gray’s Allusions Are Unfamiliar: Before teaching the poem, review the definition of an allusion. Explain that when readers recognize an unexplained reference in a passage of poetry, their understanding of what the poet is communicating is clarified and enhanced. Point out that although the allusions in Gray’s elegy may seem unfamiliar now, readers in his time would have been very familiar with them. 

  • What to do: Point out the allusion to an “unlettered Muse.” Identify the Muses as goddesses in Greek mythology, and explain their role in inspiring the creation of art and literature. Point out that in the context of the poem, the allusion is figurative, since the Muse is “unlettered,” meaning uneducated, and refers to an unidentified villager. 
  • What to do: Point out the allusion to Milton. Identify Milton, and explain his significance in 17th-century English literature, emphasizing his celebrated artistic achievements as a poet. 
  • What to do: Point out the allusions to Hampden and Cromwell. Briefly review the history of the English Civil War of 1642 that deposed King Charles I and temporarily ended the monarchy. Explain the roles John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell played in overthrowing the king. Note the contrasting descriptions of Hampden and Cromwell that suggest Gray’s attitude toward them as historical figures; Hampden is associated with courage in resisting tyranny, whereas Cromwell by implication is guilty of “his country’s blood.” 

Some Unlikely Words in the Poem Are Capitalized: Some common nouns are capitalized within the poem, even though they don’t appear at the beginning of a line. 

  • What to do: Point out these common nouns that are capitalized within lines of the poem: Ambition, Grandeur, Flattery, Death, Knowledge, Penury, Luxury, Pride, Forgetfulness, and Nature. Explain that punctuating these words with capital letters draws attention to them, suggesting that they have special significance in developing themes in the poem.
  • What to do: Explain further that each word is personified in the poem. Examine each word in context to determine if it is personified in a positive or negative way. Explain how the personification of each word contributes to theme development in the poem. 

Some Students May Find the Poem Disturbing: Death is a sensitive subject for some students, especially for those who have experienced the death of a loved one. It is also a subject that elicits conflicting personal beliefs about death and an afterlife. 

  • What to do: Take some time to acknowledge that death is indeed a serious subject— undoubtedly the most serious subject in poetry. Point out that how people feel about death is an intensely personal matter, based on their beliefs and experiences, and that their feelings and beliefs about it often differ from other people’s. 
  • What to do: Explain that “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” expresses Gray’s personal thoughts about death at a particular time in his life and that the poem is not a rejection of anyone else’s spiritual or religious beliefs about dying. 
  • What to do: After studying the poem, give students an opportunity to express their own thoughts and feelings about death or share how they experienced the loss of a loved one. Have them also write an essay, a personal narrative, or a poem to share with the teacher and with other students, if they wish. Some students might prefer to express their thoughts and feelings by drawing or painting a picture, making a collage, creating a photo essay, or writing a song. 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

To have students consider this frequently taught poem from an alternative perspective, focus on the following in teaching the text: 

Focus on contrasts in the poem. Examine the various ways Gray contrasts the villagers buried in the churchyard with those who achieve wealth and power in society. Examine how even the graves of the villagers distinguish them from those who had achieved a high position in society. 

Focus on dynamic elements in the poem. Define “dynamic” for students, and examine these dynamic elements in the text: the shifting point of view; the shifting focus of Gray’s meditation; Gray’s moving from the specific to the general and back to the specific as the poem develops and then concludes. Point out that the dynamic elements are coordinated within the text. The point of view changes as the focus of the poem develops, moving from a meditation about those buried in the churchyard to a meditation about death in general to a meditation about Gray’s own death. 

Focus on the poem as a work of pre-Romanticism. Following a short unit on 18th-century neoclassicism and 19th-century Romanticism in English literature, have students identify characteristics of neoclassicism and of Romanticism in the elegy. Establish that these elements in the poem, which was written in 1746, anticipate the rise of Romanticism in English literature: the elegy’s emotional tone, Gray’s expression of personal longing, his focus on common people and the value of their lives, and the idealized descriptions of the natural world and its beauty.


Significant Allusions


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