Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray


“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is one of Thomas Gray’s most popular poems Structurally, this poem is not an elegy as it is not written in elegiac couplets that involve a hexametric line structure followed by a pentametric line, but thematically, it is an elegy since it is set in a graveyard and expresses sorrow for loss and death. It may have been published on the death of Richard West, a relative of Gray who died in 1742. It is also itself a more general lament about human mortality. It is about meditation on the graves of humble, unheard-of, unnoticed and unknown villagers. Within the field of English literature, this poem is considered a superior example of Graveyard Poetry. Not only does it maintain an elegiac tone for the humble villagers’ death, misfortune, lack of opportunity and deprivation, it also retains an eloquent tone for their innocence, honesty, dignity, modesty, hard work and secret heroism. The poem is edifying us that goodness is greater than greatness. Modesty is more attractive than pomposity. Nobility is mightier than prosperity.

Glossary and Notes

knell – to summon
droning – boring
hamlet – home
clarion – a medieval trumpet
ply – carry out
lisp – a speech impediment, slurred speech
glebe – soil
jocund – lighthearted
disdainful – scornful
annals – history books
impute – to assign to, credit
pealing – ringing
genial – friendly
circumscribed – confined
ignoble – shameful
sequester – isolate
uncouth – uncivilized
elegy – a poem of lament and sorrow
forlorn – sad
dirges – a funeral hymn

Summary of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Lines 1-4:
In the primary stanza, the speaker observes the indicators of a rustic day drawing to a detailed: a curfew bell ringing, a herd of cattle transferring throughout the pasture, and a farm labourer returning dwelling. The speaker is then left alone to ponder the isolated rural scene. The first line of the poem creates a distinctly sombre tone: the curfew bell doesn’t merely ring; it “knells”—a term often utilized to bells rung at a death or funeral. From the beginning, then, Gray reminds us of human mortality.

Lines 5-8:

The second stanza sustains the sombre tone of the primary: the speaker shouldn’t be mournful, but pensive, as he describes the peaceable panorama that surrounds him. Even the air is characterised as having a “solemn stillness.”

Lines 9-12:

The sound of an owl hooting intrudes upon the night quietly. We are instructed that the owl “complains”; on this context, the phrase doesn’t imply “to whine” or “grumble,” however “to express sorrow.” The owl’s hooting, then, is suggestive of grief. Note that at no level in these three opening stanzas does Gray immediately confer with death or a funeral; somewhat, he does not directly create a funereal ambience by describing just some mournful sounds.

Lines 13-16:

It is in the fourth stanza that the speaker immediately attracts our consideration to the graves within the nation churchyard. We are introduced with two doubtlessly conflicting pictures of death. Line 14 describes the heaps of earth surrounding the graves; as a way to dig a grave, the earth should essentially be disrupted. Note that the syntax of this line is barely complicated. We would count on this sentence to learn “Where the turf heaves”—not “where heaves the turf”: Gray has inverted the phrase order. Just because the earth has been disrupted, the syntax imitates the way through which the earth has been disrupted. But by the identical token, the “rude Forefathers” buried beneath the earth appear solely at peace: we’re instructed that they’re laid in “cells,” a term which reminds us of the quiet of a monastery and that they “sleep.”

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Lines 17-20:

If the “Forefathers” are sleeping, nevertheless, the speaker reminds us that they’ll by no means once more rise from their “beds” to listen to the pleasurable sounds of nation life that the living does. The term “lowly beds” describes not solely the unpretentious graves through which the forefathers are buried, however, the humble situations that they endured after they had been alive.

Lines 21-24:
The speaker then strikes on to contemplate a number of the different pleasures the dead will not take pleasure in the happiness of dwelling, spouse, and kids.

Lines 25-28:

The dead can even not be capable of benefit from the pleasures of labour, of ploughing the fields every day. This stanza points to the way through which the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” accommodates parts of each Augustan and Romantic poetry. Poetry that describes agriculture—as this one does—known as georgic. Georgic verse was extraordinarily well-liked within the eighteenth century. Note, nevertheless, that Gray intently identifies the farmers with the land that they work. This affiliation of man and nature is suggestive of a romantic angle. The georgic parts of the stanza virtually demand that we characterize it as typical of the eighteenth century, however, its tone appears to be like ahead to the Romantic interval.

Lines 29-32:
The subsequent 4 stanzas warning those that are rich and highly effective to not look down on the poor. These traces warn the reader to not slight the “obscure” “destiny” of the poor—the truth that they’ll by no means be well-known or have lengthy histories, or “annals,” written about them.

Lines 33-36:

This stanza invokes the thought of memento mori (actually, a reminder of mortality). The speaker reminds the reader that no matter social place, magnificence, or wealth, all should finally die.

Lines 37-40:

The Speaker additionally challenges the reader to not look down on the poor for having modest, easy graves. He suggests, furthermore, that the frilly memorials that adorn the graves of the “Proud” are someway extreme. In this context, the phrase “fretted” in line 39 has a double that means: on the one hand, it may confer with the design on a cathedral ceiling; however, it may counsel that there’s something “fretful,” or troublesome, concerning the extravagant memorials of the rich.

Lines 41-44:

The speaker observes that nothing can deliver the dead again to live and that each one the benefits that the rich had in life are ineffective within the face of death. Neither elaborate funeral monuments nor spectacular honours can restore life. Nor can flattery in some way be used to vary the thoughts of death. Note right here Gray’s use of personification in characterizing each “flattery” and “death”—as if death has a will or thoughts of its personal.

Lines 45-48:

The speaker then reconsiders the poor folks buried within the churchyard. He wonders what nice deeds they may have completed had they been given the chance: one in all these poor farmers, the speaker causes, may need being an awesome emperor; one other may need “waked …the living lyre,” or be an awesome poet or musician.

Lines 49-52:

The poor had been by no means capable of fulfilling their political and inventive potential, nevertheless, as a result of they had been uneducated—they by no means obtained the “Knowledge” that will allow them to rule and to create. Instead, “Penury,” or poverty, “froze the genial current of their soul.” That is, poverty paralyzed their skill to attract upon their innermost passions—the very passions that would have impressed them to develop into nice poets or politicians.

Lines 53-56:

In a sequence of analogies, Gray observes that the abilities of the poor are like a “gem” hidden within the ocean or a “flower” blooming within the desert. Just as an unseen flower within the desert is a “waste,” Gray suggests, the uneducated abilities of the poor are additionally a “waste,” as a result of they continue to be unused and undeveloped.

Lines 57-60:

The speaker then compares these poor, uneducated folks to a few of essentially the most well-known and highly effective folks of the earlier century: John Hampden, a parliamentary chief who defended the folks in opposition to the abuses of Charles I; John Milton, the nice poet who wrote Paradise Lost and who additionally opposed Charles I; and Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England from 1653 to 1658. The speaker means that buried on this churchyard may be somebody who—like Hampden, Milton, or Cromwell—had the innate skill to oppose tyranny, however by no means had the chance to train that skill.

Lines 61-64:

This individual, the speaker causes, with the correct schooling and assets, may need “commanded” the federal government in addition to any nice political chief. Note, nevertheless, that Gray provides us with two methods through which to contemplate this energy. On the one hand, an awesome ruler can obtain applause and might ignore “threats of pain and ruin.” A terrific chief can “scatter plenty,” can provide prosperity, to a grateful nation. But however, if one governs, one is, actually, uncovered to harmful threats. And merely governing to obtain “applause” suggests a shallow and self-serving motive.

Moreover, “scattering plenty” implies that the wealth of a nation may be squandered by its rulers. Gray could also be suggesting that having energy shouldn’t be as fascinating because it appears. Note that the ultimate line of this stanza is enjambed; it continues into the next line—and on this case, the subsequent stanza.

Lines 65-68:

The first line of this stanza continues considered the earlier, enjambed line. It abruptly reminds us that the impoverished situations of the poor “forbade” them from changing into nice rulers. Gray underscores the abrupt shock of this concept by abruptly interrupting the circulation of the road with a caesura. Building on the thought of the earlier stanza, the speaker notes that deeply considerate and unhappy.

Lines 121-124:

The speaker asks that we keep in mind him for being beneficial and honest. His generosity was, actually, his willingness to mourn for the dead. Because he was so beneficial, the speaker causes, heaven gave him a “friend” — somebody who would, in flip, mourn for him after his death. This pal is unnamed, however, we will deduce that it’s any “kindred Spirit” — together with the reader — who reads the speaker’s epitaph and remembers him.

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Lines 125-128:

The speaker concludes by cautioning the reader to not reward him any additional. He additionally asks that his “frailties,” his flaws or private weaknesses, not be thought-about; somewhat, they need to be left to the care of God, with whom the speaker now resides. The poem, then, is an elegy not just for the frequent man however for the speaker himself. Indeed, by the top of the poem, it’s evident that the speaker himself needs to be recognized not with the nice and well-known, however with the frequent folks whom he has praised and with whom he’ll, presumably, be buried.

Important Questions and Answers

1. At what time of day does the poem take place?
The poem takes place at the “knell of a parting day,” or the evening.

2. To what sense does the second stanza appeal?
The second stanza appeals to the sense of sight.

3. Yew trees were often planted in cemeteries. What is the “narrow cell” referred to in line 15?
The “narrow cell” refers to the shallow graves, wherein the dead sleep.

4. What time of day is it in the fifth stanza?
The night has passed, and the time in the fifth stanza is the “morn.”

5. To whom is the speaker referring in lines 21-24?
The speaker is discussing the dead fathers whom he introduced in the previous stanzas. The dead are spoken of as loving and beloved husbands and fathers.

6. What is the rhyme of lines 29 and 31 more commonly known as?
The two lines, ending with “toil” and “smile,” respectively, exemplify half-rhyme.

7. What does the speaker say about the paths of glory in lines 33-36?
The speaker asserts that the paths of glory, or all human achievement, inevitably lead to death, or “the grave.”

8. In lines 55-60, to what or whom does the speaker compare a flower in the desert? Does the metaphor succeed? Why or why not?
The speaker compares a flower in the desert to the dead in the graveyard. Answers to part two may vary. Example: The metaphor succeeds because both the flower and the men represent life and beauty in an otherwise desolate landscape.

9. Living a simple life has its drawbacks, but doing so also has its positive side. According to lines 65-68, what positive side of living a simple life is pointed out?
The simple life allows for one to remain untainted by the turmoil and troubles associated with the ruling classes. Simpletons also benefit from the advantage of being able to keep to their own ways.

10. What made the lives to which the speaker refers in lines 73-74 special?
The lives referred to by the speaker are special because they remained true to their intentions and they “kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”

11. In line 80, what causes the speaker to sigh?
Answers may vary. Example: The speaker sighs out of respect and tribute to those who maintained their strength and courage through life and death. It is a sigh of awe.

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