How can Lucille Clifton's poem and Thomas Gray's "Elegy" be compared and contrasted?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It is clear immediately upon looking at these two poems and the way they are laid out on the page that the poets' stylistic and structural choices are extremely disparate. This can, in large part, be attributed to the different time periods in which the poems were written: Gray's poem was written in the eighteenth century, while Clifton's poem is modern, as indicated by the date (1989) in its title. Gray's poem uses traditional capitalization and a regular ABAB rhyme scheme, with each stanza having four lines. Rhythmically, it adheres to iambic pentameter (five feet to a line). Clifton's poem deliberately eschews capitalization and is written in free verse, with no regularity to its rhythm and no rhyme scheme. Instead, Clifton uses repetition and parallelism to lend cohesion to her poem.

In theme, however, the two poems have similarities. Both have descriptive titles explaining that they were written in cemeteries and both express the thoughts of each poet upon what lay therein. Gray's poem is, as the title says, an elegy, a lament for the dead, "each in his narrow cell for ever laid." The tone and mood of the poem is quiet and reflective, emphasizing the slowness and quietude of evening in the churchyard with words like "weary," "fades," and "stillness." Only the animals move in the churchyard and disturb the quiet, but these noises "no more shall rouse [the dead] from their lowly bed."

Gray makes clear that the people whose lives he is lamenting are "the poor," whose lives were "short and simple." These people are left to "destiny obscure," although in life they had the "blazing hearth." The conclusion Gray draws is that "the paths of glory lead . . . to the grave" whether we are poor or rich and that although these men are not memorialized, memorials are ultimately useless; can "Flatt'ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?"

Gray muses as to whether, among these poor dead, there may have been great men—"some mute inglorious Milton" or "some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood." However, their "lot" forbade them from achieving recognition in life. Death, though, is the great equalizer, in that "heav'n did a recompense as largely send" to a poor man as to a rich one, whether he lies in an unmarked grave or under an enormous memorial. We cannot take wealth into the next life.

Clifton is also concerned with the dead from a lesser "lot" in life and those whose graves are unmarked. Their "dishonored names"—a line which echoes Gray's "unhonour'd dead"—are lost to time because "the inventory lists ten slaves / but only men were recognized." Like the poor in Gray's poem, the buried slaves in Walnut Grove received no recognition in life, where "nobody mentioned slaves" when gazing upon the works of their hands. Clifton repeats the line "tell me your names" as a means of recognizing these slaves now: she "will testify" on behalf of those who "moulder[s] under rock."

The structure of the poem seems to echo the writer's intent: it becomes increasingly list-like, as if in imitation of the list of names which was never written up for those buried here. Clifton's purpose in writing this poem is to listen to those who were not heard in life, as is emphasized by the deliberate use of the homophone "hear," isolated on the final line:

here lies
here lies

Clifton is directly addressing those who were not considered "men," or human, in life, her poem almost a celebration of their unmarked lives, rather than a lament for their deaths.

In theme, then, the two poems both serve to remember and extol the virtues of people from lower stations in life, who received no memorial and were not recognized, when they lived, for the vital work they did. In structure and tone, however, the poems have significant differences.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial