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.

Themes

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Last Reviewed on April 30, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 975

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.

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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 stray.” These lines express a sense that rustic life is ennobling by virtue of its difficulties and modesty; indeed, it is superior to the “ignoble strife” of city life. The ensuing stanzas elevate the commoners’ “frail” memorials with “uncouth rhymes” to the status of the “shrine of Luxury and Pride” that marks the graves of the wealthy and powerful. Although the rustic villagers are not valued by the wealthy, they have an intrinsic value that transcends social class.

The poem suggests that the common person who passes on deserves a memorial to signify his or her passing, as well as to provide a place for the living to commemorate the dead. After all, “the parting soul relies” on the living to be remembered and lamented. Gray ultimately laments that no one leaves this life, “the warm precincts of the cheerful day,” without looking back with longing and regret.

Poetry and Posterity

Gray’s speaker is, like Gray, a poet. Although it is impossible to determine the degree to which the speaker represents Gray himself, the speaker’s meditation on his own death and memorialization at the end of the poem marks a personal turn. The speaker addresses himself in stanza 24 to inquire how “some kindred spirit” might ask about his the poet’s life and death, and in a shift of roles, places the narrative in the hands of a villager who briefly recounts the behavior of the village poet, Gray’s speaker and alter ego.

The villager describes an isolated man, “now dropping, woeful wan, like one forlorn, / Or crazed with care,” who disappears one day, and having died, is being taken to the churchyard for burial. The last section of the poem is the speaker’s epitaph, which describes him as he has described the villagers in the churchyard: “to Fortune and to Fame unknown.” Gray adds an important quality, however, that points to his own conception of what makes a poet an accurate observer of life: “And Melancholy mark’d him for her own,” by which he means that the speaker has poetic sensibilities, including an understanding of the sorrows that all humankind is subject to. Last, the poet notes that his good and bad qualities are no longer worth examining because he is in God’s hands. This final section dramatizes the position of the poet, who witnesses and memorializes the lives of others while being mortal himself, as liable to fall into obscurity as his subjects. However, one can hardly read the poem today without noting that Gray, for his part, is far from forgotten.

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