Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

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,


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)
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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!
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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 ..
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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 ...
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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

Commentary by Ian Lancashire


Critics have spent entire books interpreting Gray's "Elegy." Is it ironic, as Cleanth Brooks would have us believe, or is it sentimental, as Samuel Johnson might say? Does it express Gray's melancholic democratic feelings about the oneness of human experience from the perspective of death, or does Gray discuss the life and death of another elegist, one who, in his youth, suffered the same obscurity as the "rude forefathers" in the country graveyard? Should Gray have added the final "Epitaph" to his work?

Readers whose memories have made Gray's "Elegy" one of the most loved poems in English -- nearly three-quarters of its 128 lines appear in the Oxford Book of Quotations -- seem unfazed by these questions. What matters to readers, over time, is the power of "Elegy" to console. Its title describes its function: lamenting someone's death, and affirming the life that preceded it so that we can be comforted. One may die after decades of anonymous labour, uneducated, unknown or scarcely remembered, one's potential unrealized, Gray's poem says, but that life will have as many joys, and far fewer ill effects on others, than lives of the rich, the powerful, the famous. Also, the great memorials that money can buy do no more for the deceased than a common grave marker. In the end, what counts is friendship, being mourned, being cried for by someone who was close. "He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a tear, / He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a friend" (123-24). This sentiment, found in the controversial epitaph, affirms what the graveyard's lonely visitor says earlier: "On some fond breast the parting soul relies, / Some pious drops the closing eye requires" (89-90). Gray's restraint, his habit of speaking in universals rather than particulars, and his shifting from one speaker to another, control the powerful feelings these lines call up. They frame everything at some distance from the viewer.

The poem opens with a death-bell sounding, a knell. The lowing of cattle, the droning of a beetle in flight, the tinkling of sheep-bells, and the owl's hooting (stanzas 1-3) mourn the passing of a day, described metaphorically as if it were a person, and then suitably the narrator's eye shifts to a human graveyard. From creatures that wind, plod, wheel, and wander, he looks on still, silent "mould'ring" heaps, and on turf under a moonlit tower where "The rude forefathers" "sleep" in a "lowly bed." Gray makes his sunset a truly human death-knell. No morning bird-song, evening family life, or farming duties (stanzas 5-7) will wake, welcome, or occupy them. They have fallen literally under the sickle, the ploughshare, and the axe that they once wielded. They once tilled glebe land, fields owned by the church, but now lie under another church property, the parish graveyard.

This scene remains in memory as the narrator contrasts it with allegorical figures who represent general traits of eighteenth-century humanity: Ambition (29), Grandeur (31), Memory (38), Honour (43), Flattery and Death (44), Knowledge (49), Penury (51), Luxury and Pride (71), Forgetfulness (85), and Nature (91). In shifting from individuals to universal types that characterize the world at large, the poem exchanges country "darkness" for civic and national life. Yet, against expectations, the narrator defends the dead in his remote churchyward cemetery from the contempt of abstractions like Ambition and Grandeur. He makes four arguments. First, the goals of the great, which include aristocratic lineage, beauty, power, wealth, and glory, share the same end as the "rude forefathers," the grave. Human achievements diminish from the viewpoint of the eternal. The monuments that Memory erects for them ("storied urn or animated bust"), the church anthems sung at their funeral, and the praise of Honour or Flattery before or after death also cannot ameliorate that fate. The narrator reduces the important, living and deceased, to the level of the village dead. Secondly, he asks pointedly why, were circumstances different, were they to have been educated with Knowledge's "roll" and released from "Chill Penury," would they not have achieved as much in poetry and politics as did figures like Hampden, Milton, and Cromwell? Thirdly, the narrator suggests that his unimportant, out-of-power country dead lived morally better lives by being untempted to commit murder or act cruelly. Last, "uncouth rhymes," "shapeless sculpture," and "many a holy text" that characterize their "frail" cemetery memorials, and even those markers with only a simple name and age at death, "spelt by th' unlettered muse" (81), serve the important universal human needs: to prompt "the passing tribute of a sigh" (80) and to "teach the rustic moralist to die" (84).

In the next three stanzas, the narrator -- the "me" who with darkness takes over the world at sunset (4) -- finally reveals why he is in the cemetery, telling the "artless tale" of the "unhonour'd Dead" (93). He is one of them. Like the "rude Forefathers" among whom he is found, the narrator ghost is "to Fortune and to Fame unknown" (118). Like anyone who "This pleasing anxious being e'er resigned," he -- in this narrative itself -- casts "one longing, ling'ring look behind" to life (86-88). As he says, "Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries" (91). He tells us the literal truth in saying, "Ev'n in our ashes live their wonted fires" (92). These fires appear in his ashes, which speak this elegy. He anticipates this astounding confession earlier in saying:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
or wak'd to ecstasy the living lyre.

As Nature's voice from the dead, the "living lyre," he addresses himself in the past tense as having passed on, as of course he did. Should some "kindred spirit" ask about his "fate," that of the one who describes the dead "in these lines," an old "swain" (shepherd) might describe his last days. If so, he would have seen, with "another" person, the narrator's bier carried towards the church and his epitaph "Grav'd on the stone" (116). Only a ghost would know, with certainty, that "The paths of glory lead but to the grave" (36). Little wonder that the poem ends with the swain's invitation to the "kindred spirit" to read the text of the narrator's own epitaph. The narrator ghost gave "all he had, a tear," and did get the only good he wished for, "a friend." He affirms the value of friendship above all other goods in life. His wish is granted by the kindred spirit who seeks out his lost companion.

Critics have gone to some lengths to explain the narrator's address to himself as "thee" (93). Some believe Gray slipped and meant "me" instead (despite "thy" at 96). Others argue that the dead narrator is "the' unlettered muse," the so-called "stonecutter-poet" who wrote simple epitaphs with "uncouth rhymes" (79-81), although the dead youth's knowledge of "Fair Science" (119) clearly rules that out. Still others believe that Gray himself is the narrator, but his age at the poem's completion was 35, hardly a youth. The "Elegy" is spoken, not by Gray but by a dramatic persona. The simplest explanation is that the poem is a ghost's monologue with the living about death. "Elegy" belongs to the so-called "graveyard" school of poetry. It follows Churchill's "The Ghost" and anticipates the gothic movement.

Gray adopts and refines a regular poetics typical of his period. His iambic pentameter quatrains are self-contained and end-stopped. They do not enjamb with the next stanza but close with terminal punctuation, except for two passionate sequences. Stanzas 16-18 express the narrator's crescendo of anger at the empowered proud whose virtues go hand-in-hand with crimes: slaughter, mercilessness, and lying. Stanzas 24-25 introduce the dead youth who, I suggest, narrates the poem. Quatrains also regularly consist of end-stopped lines, equally self-contained and even interchangeable. For example, in the first stanza, lines 1-3 could be in any order, and lines 2 and 4 could change places. Gray builds his lines, internally, of units just as regular. Often lines are miniature clauses with balanced subject and predicate, such as "The curfew" (subject) and "tolls the knell of parting day" (predicate; 1), or "No children" (subject) and "run to lisp their sire's return" (predicate; 23). Within both subject and predicate units, Gray inserts adjective-noun pairs like "parting day," "lowing herd," "weary way," "glimm'ring landscape," "solemn stillness," "droning flight," "drowsy tinklings," and "distant fold" (1-8). By assembling larger blocks from these smaller ones, Gray builds symmetry at all levels.

He also links sequences of these regular blocks. Alliteration, unobtrusively, ties successive lines together: for example, "herd wind" and "homeward" (2-3), "droning flight" and "distant folds" (7-8), and "mantl'd tow'r" and "moping owl" (9-10). Gray rhymes internally in "slowly o'er the lea" (2) or "And all the air ... / Save where" (6-7), or he exploits an inconspicuous initial assonance or consonance in "Beneath ... / Where heaves" (12-14), and "The cock's shrill ... / No more shall" (19-20). Parallel syntactic construction across line and stanza boundaries links sequences of such larger units. For example, twinned clauses appear with "Save" (7, 9), "How" (27-28), "Can" (41, 43), "Full many a" (53, 55), "forbade" (65, 67), and "For who" and "For thee" (85, 93), among others.

Semantically, Gray's "Elegy" reads like a collage of remembered experiences. Some are realized in both image and sound. "The swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built shed" (18) vividly and sharply conveys one instant in the awakening process on a farm. At other times, the five senses blur, as in "the madding crowd's ignoble strife" (73), or "This pleasing anxious being" (86), but these remain snapshots, though of feelings, not images. They flow from a lived life remembering its keenest moments in tranquillity. Some of these moments are literary. In 1768, Gray added three notes to "Elegy" that identify where he adopts lines in by Dante and Petrarch. "Elegy" is rife with other, unacknowledged echoes of poems by contemporaries, famous and obscure: Robert Colvill, Paul Whitehead, Henry Needler, Richard West, Alexander Pope, Samuel Whyte, Joseph Trapp, Henry Jones, John Oldmixon, and doubtless many others contributed phrases to Gray's poem.

These formal elements in Gray's poetics beautifully strengthen the poem's content. "Elegy" gives us a ghost's perspective on his life, and ours. The old swain describes him as a melancholic loner who loved walking by hill, heath, trees, and stream. The epitaph also reveals that he was well-educated, a youth who died unknown. These are the very qualities we might predict in the writer, from the style of his verse. "Elegy" streams with memories of the countryside where the youth walked. The firm, mirrored linguistic structures with which he conveys those recalled moments belong to someone well-educated in Latin, "Fair Science," and well-read in English poetry. Gray did not just give his readers succinct aphorisms about what Isaac Watt would term, "Man Frail, God Eternal," but recreated a lost human being. In reading "Elegy," we recreate a person, only to find out that he died, too young, too kind, and too true to a melancholy so many share.


  • Jones, W. P., "Imitations of Gray's Elegy, 1751-1800," Bulletin of Bibliography 23 (1963): 230-32.
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Publication Start Year
RPO poem Editors
G. G. Falle
RPO Edition
3RP 2.219.