Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Summary
by Thomas Gray

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Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Summary

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray is a 1751 poem about the buried inhabitants of a country churchyard and a meditation on the inevitability of death for all.

  • At dusk, the speaker observes the rural landscape and watches the plowman and his cattle heading home.
  • Upon seeing grave sites in the shade of a yew tree, the speaker considers the deaths of poor and rich people alike.
  • The speaker praises the modesty of the graves in the churchyard and realizes that death consigns all people, poor and rich, obscure and renowned, to a fate of oblivion.

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Summary

Introduction

Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), the most important and widely read example of elegiac poetry in eighteenth-century English literature, is Gray’s response to seeing a village churchyard near his mother’s house in the small village of Stoke Poges in England. The pastoral scene inspired Gray’s meditation on mortality and remembrance among the common people of England’s rural, agricultural society. Gray ends his exploration on a personal note. Using the persona of an observer, an old villager, Gray describes himself from a distance and discloses how he hopes to be remembered by creating his own epitaph.

Summary

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” which Gray began to compose in 1742 and published in 1751, is considered the best example of elegiac poetry in English literature of the eighteenth century. Gray’s elegy explores the nature of mortality and remembrance and also suggests the poet’s own view of how he wishes to be remembered. Gray wrote two versions: the first as early as 1742 after the death of his friend Richard West, and the second around 1748 after the death of an aunt. The published poem of 1751 contains major revisions, notably a shift in focus at the end of the poem to Gray’s own reflections on how posterity will remember him as a poet.

Elegies are generally poems that center on the death of a specific person, such as Milton’s “Lycidas,” but Gray uses the elegiac form to explore death as a universal experience that mankind must understand and accept. Elegies can take any poetic form, but Gray uses the “elegiac stanza,” which came into style during his time and which he perfected. The elegiac stanza form consists of four-line stanzas, or quatrains, written in iambic pentameter and with an ABAB rhyme scheme. Iambic pentameter is often considered the most natural English meter. In the case of the elegiac stanza form, iambic pentameter helps the poet create a pensive and stately rhythm that mirrors that solemnity of the subject. The gently rolling terrain of the country graveyard is reflected in the regularity and sweep of Gray’s pentameter, allowing syntax and sense to blend naturally.

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” can loosely be divided into five groups of stanzas. Stanzas 1–5 explore the landscape: the country graveyard and its sounds, terrain, flora and fauna and, most importantly, the physical and metaphorical stage on which Gray’s meditation will play out. Stanzas 6 and 7 briefly but emotionally describe the familial and rustic activities that the “rude forefathers” can no longer enjoy. In stanzas 8–18, the most sustained discussion of death as the great equalizer of social class, Gray explores the contrast between the wealthy classes and the common laborers, all of whom are made equal in death. Stanzas 19–23 center on the village’s deceased rustic people and their inherent value as objects of memory. The last group, stanzas 24–32, includes the speaker’s own epitaph and describes the speaker’s meditation on how his poetic life will be remembered.

The poem begins by depicting the landscape on which the speaker will begin his meditation on death. The scene is of the eponymous rural churchyard at dusk, when the “lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea” and the plowman “plods his weary way,” leaving the...

(The entire section is 1,147 words.)