Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Original Text: 
Thomas Gray, An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard, 1751; and The Eton College Manuscript (Los Angeles, CA: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1951). PR 3502 E5 1751a. VICT Pam
2      The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
3The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
4      And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
5Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight,
6      And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
7Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
10      The moping owl does to the moon complain
11Of such, as wand'ring near her secret bow'r,
12      Molest her ancient solitary reign.
13Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
14      Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
15Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
18      The swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built shed,
20      No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
21For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
22      Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
23No children run to lisp their sire's return,
24      Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
25Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
27How jocund did they drive their team afield!
28      How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
29Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
31Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
33The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
34      And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
37Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
40      The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
42      Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
44      Or Flatt'ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
45Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
46      Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
47Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
48      Or wak'd to ecstasy the living lyre.
49But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
50      Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
52      And froze the genial current of the soul.
53Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
54      The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
55Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
56      And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
58      The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
60      Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.
61Th' applause of list'ning senates to command,
62      The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
63To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
64      And read their hist'ry in a nation's eyes,
65Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib'd alone
66      Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin'd;
67Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
68      And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,
70      To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
71Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
74      Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
75Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
76      They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
77Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect,
78      Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
79With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
80      Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
81Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse,
82      The place of fame and elegy supply:
83And many a holy text around she strews,
84      That teach the rustic moralist to die.
85For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
86      This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd,
87Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
88      Nor cast one longing, ling'ring look behind?
89On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
90      Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
91Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
93For thee, who mindful of th' unhonour'd Dead
94      Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
95If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
96      Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,
97Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
98      "Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
99Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
101"There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
102      That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
103His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
104      And pore upon the brook that babbles by.
105"Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
106      Mutt'ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
107Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
108      Or craz'd with care, or cross'd in hopeless love.
109"One morn I miss'd him on the custom'd hill,
110      Along the heath and near his fav'rite tree;
111Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
112      Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;
114      Slow thro' the church-way path we saw him borne.
115Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
120     And Melancholy mark'd him for her own.
121Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
122     Heav'n did a recompense as largely send:
123He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a tear,
124     He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a friend.
125No farther seek his merits to disclose,
126     Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
128     The bosom of his Father and his God.


1] First published, anonymously, 1751, under the title "An Elegy wrote in a Country Churchyard." The date of composition of the Elegy, apart from the concluding stanzas, cannot be exactly determined. The sole authority for the frequently repeated statement that Gray began the poem in 1742 is Mason's conjecture in the memoir prefixed to his edition of The Poems of Mr. Gray, 1775. The Elegy was concluded at Stoke Poges in June, 1750. (See letter to Walpole, June 12, 1750.) The churchyard as described by Gray is typical rather than particular; of the five disputed "originals" Stoke Poges bears the least resemblance to the graveyard in the Elegy. Five candidate churchyards for Gray's setting include Stoke Poges (unlikely), Upton (near Slough), Grantchester and Madingley (near Cambridge), and Thanington (near Canterbury), but the features might as readily be non-specific.
curfew: originally rung at eight o'clock as a signal for extinguishing fires; after this practice had ceased, the word was applied to an evening bell. In his note to this first line Gray refers to Dante, Purgatorio, VIII, 5-6: "Squilla di lontano / Che paia 'l giorno pianger, che si muore." Back to Line
8] tinklings: made by sheep-bells. Back to Line
9] Cf. Robert Colvill's "Britain, a Poem," II, 45-57:
Even thus, the keen ey'd falcon swift descends
On Pallas' bird victorious; long he watch'd
The tempting spoil, and she his rage defy'd,
Close shelter'd in her ivy mantl'd tower;
Compell'd abroad, while circling slow she wheels
In quest of food, and least expects the snare,
Strait from his airy flight the victor stoops,
As lightning-swift, and bears the captive prey. (450-57)
Back to Line
16] rude: unlearned. Back to Line
17] incense-breathing: cf. Paradise Lost, IX, 193-4. Also Pope, Messiah, 24: "With all the incense of the breathing spring." Back to Line
19] The cock's shrill clarion: cf. Paradise Lost, VII, 443-44: "the crested cock, whose clarion sounds/The silent hours." Cf. Paul Whitehead's "The State of Rome" (1739), lines 173-74:
But hold, War's Rumour! mark the loud Alarms!
Hark the shrill Clarion sounds to Arms, to Arms!
Back to Line
26] broke: old `strong' form of the past participle, `broken.' Back to Line
30] homely: domestic. Back to Line
32] short and simple annals: parish registers of births, christenings, marriages, and deaths (Richard Leighton Greene, "Gray's Elegy written in a Country Churchyard," The Explicator 24.6 [Feb. 1966].) Back to Line
35] Cf. Henry Needler's "Horace. Book IV. Ode VII. Paraphras'd," lines 30-34:
When once th' inevitable Hour is come,
At which thou must receive thy final Doom;
Thy Noble Birth, thy Eloquence Divine,
And shining Piety shall nought encline
The stubborn Will of unrelenting Fate ...
and Richard West's "A Monody on the Death of Queen Caroline" (Dodsley's Collection of Poems [1748]: II, 273):
Ah me! What boots us all our boasted power,
Our golden treasure, and our purpled state?
They cannot ward the inevitable hour,
Nor stay the fearful violence of Fate.
A collective (singular) subject is possible, though the word `hour' might also be the subject of the word `awaits.' Back to Line
36] Cf. Pope's "The First Book of the Odyssey," lines 391-92:
O greatly bless'd with ev'ry blooming grace!
With equal steps the paths of glory trace ..
Back to Line
38] Trophies: memorials. Back to Line
39] fretted: adorned with carved or embossed work. Cf. Hamlet, II, ii: "this majestical roof fretted with golden fire." Back to Line
41] Cf. Samuel Whyte's "Elegy II" (1722), lines 119-20:
No breathing Marble o'er his Dust shall stand;
No storied Urn shall celebrate his Name ...
Back to Line
43] provoke: in its original sense, to call forth, to challenge. Back to Line
51] rage: as often in the poetry of the eighteenth century, poetic fire (furor poeticus). Back to Line
57] Hampden: John Hampden (ca. 1595-1643), one of the noblest of English Parliamentary statesmen; a central figure of the English revolution in its earlier stages. Back to Line
59] Cf. Joseph Trapp's "Virgil's Aeneis," IV, 512-14:
He, to protract his aged Father's Life,
Chose Skill in Med'cine, and the Pow'rs of Herbs;
And exercis'd a mute inglorious Art.
Back to Line
69] conscious truth: truthful awareness of inward guilt. Back to Line
72] In the Eton MS. this line was followed by four stanzas which were omitted in the published text. Here, according to Mason, the poem was intended to close; the "hoary-headed swain" and the epitaph were after-thoughts.
pious: dutiful. Back to Line
73] Cf. Henry Jones' "On seeing a Picture of his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, which was presented to the University of Dublin" (1749), lines 61-64:
Her favour'd Sons from 'midst the madding Crowd,
Her Sons select with gentle Hand she drew,
Secreted timely from th'austere and proud,
Their Fame wide-spreading, tho' their Numbers few.

madding: outraged. Back to Line
92] Gray's note refers to Petrarch's sonnet 169:
Ch 'i veggio nel pensier, dolce mio fuoco,
Fredda una lingua, et due begli occhi chiusi
Rimaner doppo noi pien di faville.
Back to Line
100] lawn: meadow. In the Eton MS. after lìne 100 there is the following stanza: "Him have we seen the greenwood side along, /While o'er the heath we hied, our labours done, /Oft as the woodlark pip'd her farewell song,/With wistful eyes pursue the setting sun." Mason is puzzled by Gray's rejection of this stanza for the published text.
Sometimes compared to another elegy, John Milton's "Lycidas," lines 25-31:
Together both, ere the high lawns appear'd
Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
We drove afield, and both together heard
What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Batt'ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the star that rose at ev'ning bright
Toward heav'n's descent had slop'd his westering wheel.
Back to Line
113] next: following morning. sad: serious. Back to Line
116] In some of the first editions of the poem, the following stanza preceded the epitaph: "There scatter'd oft, the earliest of the year,/By hands unseen are show'rs of violets found;/The redbreast loves to build and warble there,/And little footsteps lightly print the ground." According to a marginal note of Gray, it was "omitted in 1753." Mason explains the omission by saying that Gray found it formed "too long a parenthesis in this place."The epitaph is not in the early Eton manuscript of the poem. Back to Line
117] Here lies: the Latin "hic jacet." Back to Line
118] Cf. John Oldmixon's "Epistle V: Queen Elizabeth to the Earl of Essex" (1703), lines 37-40:
Warm'd by my Smiles, and kindled into Man,
Thy Soul to feel Heroick Flames began:
Till then to Fortune, and to Fame, unknown,
Who since defended, and adorn'd the Throne.
Back to Line
119] Science: knowledge in the general sense. Cf. Ode on Eton College, 3, and note. Back to Line
127] Gray's note to this line refers to Petrarch, Sonnet 114: "paventosa speme." Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
G. G. Falle
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.219.