Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

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Teaching Approaches

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 serene
The 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 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...

(The entire section is 1,948 words.)