Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Themes
The main themes in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" are the universality of death, social class and value, and poetry and posterity.
- The universality of death: Gray's poem depicts death as a leveling force that brings all people, whether rich or poor, to the same final fate.
- Social class and value: The poem argues against the notion that the poor are less worthy than the rich. Indeed, Gray suggests that all deserve to be remembered.
- Poetry and posterity: Gray's speaker is a poet, and as he memorializes others in his melancholic mode, he is aware of his own finitude.
The Universality of Death
The central focus of Gray’s elegy is the inevitability of death and how men and women from different social classes are remembered. Strictly speaking, the traditional elegy form memorializes an individual’s death, but Gray expands the form to encompass death as a phenomenon that all of humankind inevitably experiences. In “Elegy,” Gray meditates on death as it relates to the rustic commoners who populate the village and its country churchyard. The poem attends to those living in a small England village, including the “plowman [who] plods his weary way” home at night and ends his life “in a narrow cell forever laid.” Such scenes are far from the busy world of wealth and power.
Gray places the “rustic forefathers” who lie in the graveyard in opposition to the mocking personification of “Ambition” and the “disdainful smile” of Grandeur, who presumably look upon the rustics buried in the graveyard with contempt. Gray’s opening salvo in this contrast between two vastly different social classes emphasizes death’s universality: just as the poor and common people are subject to death, “the paths of glory lead but to the grave” as well. Death is blind to mankind’s social constructs such as class distinction. Death is the ultimate leveler.
Social Class and Value
A significant aspect of Gray’s elegy is his belief that the wealthy and powerful, who perceive the common man as less worthy, are wrongly conflating wealth and power with value. Gray’s meditation on how the wealthy and poor are remembered allows him to explore social values. The poem ultimately suggests that an individual’s value ought not to be tied to social class.
In stanzas 10–18, Gray unleashes a forceful attack on the assumption that the rustic poor are inherently less valuable to society than the rich and powerful people who wield the “pomp of pow’r” and “all that wealth e’re gave.” Gray illustrates his views with the monuments by which the dead are remembered. The poem asks whether the wealthy and powerful can be brought back to life by “storied urn or animated bust” any more effectively than the poor, whose graves are marked by “no trophies.”
Gray’s speaker, himself not part of the upper stratum of English society, notes that, among the rustic dead may lie “some heart once pregnant with celestial fire,” indicating a would-be poet. But such commoners live lives in which brilliant achievements are unobtainable, because “chill Penury repress’d their noble rage.” That is, poverty ruins their chances of development. Poverty is personified as “chill Penury” to frame it as an active force militating against a person’s growth in mind and spirit. In stanza 15, Gray alludes to notable figures—John Hampden, Milton, and Cromwell—who represent lives that the commoners in the graves could never emulate, because of the difficulty of their lives. Gray makes it clear that, because of poverty, many potential Miltons and Hampdens go undeveloped and therefore unvalued.
Rural Life and Remembrance
In one of the most quoted passages of the poem, Gray introduces his argument that despite the anonymity of the commoners buried in the churchyard, they must be memorialized and thereby remembered: “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, / Their sober wishes never learn’d to...
(The entire section is 975 words.)