Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
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
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
Even thus, the keen ey'd falcon swift descendsBack to Line
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)
But hold, War's Rumour! mark the loud Alarms!Back to Line
Hark the shrill Clarion sounds to Arms, to Arms!
When once th' inevitable Hour is come,and Richard West's "A Monody on the Death of Queen Caroline" (Dodsley's Collection of Poems : II, 273):
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 ...
Ah me! What boots us all our boasted power,A collective (singular) subject is possible, though the word `hour' might also be the subject of the word `awaits.' Back to Line
Our golden treasure, and our purpled state?
They cannot ward the inevitable hour,
Nor stay the fearful violence of Fate.
O greatly bless'd with ev'ry blooming grace!Back to Line
With equal steps the paths of glory trace ..
No breathing Marble o'er his Dust shall stand;Back to Line
No storied Urn shall celebrate his Name ...
He, to protract his aged Father's Life,Back to Line
Chose Skill in Med'cine, and the Pow'rs of Herbs;
And exercis'd a mute inglorious Art.
pious: dutiful. Back to Line
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
Ch 'i veggio nel pensier, dolce mio fuoco,Back to Line
Fredda una lingua, et due begli occhi chiusi
Rimaner doppo noi pien di faville.
Sometimes compared to another elegy, John Milton's "Lycidas," lines 25-31:
Together both, ere the high lawns appear'dBack to Line
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.
Warm'd by my Smiles, and kindled into Man,Back to Line
Thy Soul to feel Heroick Flames began:
Till then to Fortune, and to Fame, unknown,
Who since defended, and adorn'd the Throne.
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.