Themes and Meanings
Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a meditation about death as the final estate of the human condition, regardless of wealth, position, or power. The first four stanzas present images of twilight settling over a solitary figure in a small country churchyard. The first line, “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,” expresses the inevitable presence of death in three words: tolls, knell, and parting. Gray’s use of the word “toll” recalls a line from John Donne’s “Meditation XVII”: “Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.” Stanza 4 concludes the opening picture and leaves no doubt about the subject of the meditation: “Each in his narrow cell forever laid,/ The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”
The next four stanzas continue the theme of death as the end of all individuals by listing the activities the dead used to do but do “no more.” The repetition of “no more” (line 20) and “For them no more” (line 21) emphasizes the fact that all human activity leads to the grave.
The poet has established a dramatic point of view: The reader sees the world through the eyes of a single figure who is humankind, who sees the truth and sees the destiny of all. Yet each of the “rude forefathers” represents humankind as well: Their fate is our own. Thus one has both the living, contemplating human destiny and death, and the dead, whose destiny is all too clear.
These two merge later in the poem, beginning in stanza 24, where, suddenly, the speaker imagines himself dead and buried, and the reader is invited to read his epitaph (line 115). In the face of inevitable doom, the speaker holds out the hope for immortality by making a friend of Heaven and by believing that, dead, he rests in “The bosom of his Father and his God” (line 128).
Gray's "Elegy" is one of the best-known poems about death in all of European literature. The poem presents the reflections of an observer who, passing by a churchyard that is out in the country, stops for a moment to think about the significance of the strangers buried there. Scholars of medieval times sometimes kept human skulls on their desktops, to keep themselves conscious of the fact that someday they, like the skulls' former occupants, would die: from this practice we get the phrase memento mori, which we say to this day to describe any token one uses to keep one's mortality in mind. In this poem, the graveyard acts as a memento mori, reminding the narrator to not place too much value on this life because someday he too will be dead and buried. The speaker of the poem is surrounded by the idea of death, and throughout the first seven stanzas there are numerous images pointing out the contrast between death and life. After mentioning the churchyard in the title, which establishes the theme of mortality, the poem itself begins with images of gloom and finality. The darkness at the end of the day, the forlorn moan of lowing cattle, the stillness of the air (highlighted by the beetle's stilted motion) and the owl's nocturnal hooting all serve to set a background for this serious meditation. However, it is not until the fourth stanza that the poem actually begins to deal with the cemetery, mentioned as the place where the village forefathers "sleep." In the following stanzas, the speaker tries to imagine what the lives of these simple men might have been like, touching upon their relations with their wives, children, and the soil that they worked. They are not defined by their possessions, because they had few, and instead are defined by their actions, which serves to contrast their lives with their quiet existence in the graveyard. This "Elegy" presents the dead in the best light: their families adored them and they were cheerful in their work, as they "hummed the woods beneath their steady stroke." The speaker openly admits that they are spoken of so well precisely because they are dead, because death...
(The entire section is 1,385 words.)