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A Short Analysis of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’

A summary of a classic poem

There was a time when every schoolchild could quote lines from Thomas Gray’s poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, since it was a popular poem to be taught, learnt by rote, and analysed in schools in Britain. Gray’s poem gave Thomas Hardy the phrase ‘far from the madding crowd’ for use as the title of his fourth published novel; the phrase ‘paths of glory’ was used as the title for Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war film; and the phrase ‘mute inglorious Milton’ has become well-known. But in recent decades its popularity has declined. Is it still worth reading, studying, and subjecting to close analysis? Yes, yes, and yes. First, here’s a reminder of the text of ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, before we move on to explain 1) why it isn’t an elegy, 2) why Gray didn’t want it published, and 3) how an obscure poet who died young helped to sow the seeds of this great poem.

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

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.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.

For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
“Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.

“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.

“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,
Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

“The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

THE EPITAPH
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.

First, a brief summary of the poem’s background. Gray completed ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ in 1750 and sent the poem to his friend Horace Walpole (the inventor of the Gothic novel and coiner of the word ‘serendipity’), who circulated it among his literary friends before Gray published the poem in 1751. He published it on 15 February 1751,

050, 9/23/99, 10:53 AM, 8C, 3372x2952, 75%, chrom7, 1/40s, R252, G200, B348,

one day before a pirated edition was due to be published without Gray’s permission. This is the only reason Gray agreed to publish it: it was going to be published anyway, with or without his say-so. But the germ of the poem actually goes back to 1742, when the young poet Richard West – a friend of both Gray and Walpole – died, while only in his mid-twenties. Gray wrote a sonnet on the death of his friend, but it would be the ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ – an elegy not just for West but for all promising folk who toil away in obscurity and never had a chance to fulfil their potential – that would prove his lasting legacy. (In the same year that Gray’s friend died, he coined the nonce-word ‘leucocholy’, for ‘a white Melancholy’ which ‘though it seldom laughs or dances, nor ever amounts to what one calls Joy or Pleasure, yet is a good easy sort of a state.’ (‘Melancholy’ is from the Greek for ‘black bile’.)

Technically, though, in terms of its form Gray’s ‘Elegy’ is not an elegy. It doesn’t mourn West or any one other individual, but is instead more of an ode, which sees Gray meditating on death and the lives of simple rustic folk. This, in summary, is what the ‘Elegy’ is about. The ‘country churchyard’ referred to in the poem’s title belonged to St Giles’ parish church at Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire, although it’s likely that Gray had written much of the poem before he moved to Stoke Poges. (Confusingly, although Gray’s ‘Elegy’ isn’t an elegy in the strictest sense but more of an ode, his other most famous poem, ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes’, is more of an elegy than an ode.)

As we remarked at the beginning, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ has bequeathed a number of famous titles and phrases to the world. But Gray’s use of language in this poem is masterly right from the start. Consider the use of vowel sounds in that opening stanza:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Was there ever a better description of the weariness of the evening after a hard day’s work, brilliantly capturing the time of day when simple labouring folk would retire home after toiling in the fields all day? Look at the way ‘lowing’ is heard again in ‘slowly’, turning into ‘plowman’ but with the earlier o-sound returning in ‘homeward’, just as the stoke-poges-country-churchyard-thomas-grays-elegyplowman himself returns home. (Similarly, ‘lea’ is echoed in ‘leaves’. But really, the gentle play of assonance and alliteration in the entire stanza is majestic. It’s pleasing that the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the word ‘lyricism’ is from Thomas Gray, writing in 1760.)

Yet for all that, is Gray calling for political change in the ‘Elegy’? He is singing the praises of the unsung heroes of England, those who pass their lives in anonymity; but does he seem to be saying that these people would be better off if their talents were recognised, or if people from humble backgrounds had more opportunities? William Empson, in an influential reading in his 1935 book Some Versions of Pastoral, thought not. For Empson, the poem – whether intentionally or not on Gray’s part – appears to be conservative in its message, arguing that the status quo is the natural way of things (no matter how much the quo, to borrow from Laurence Peter, may have lost its status). Empson cites the following stanza:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

As Empson points out in his analysis of this stanza, Gray’s analogy with the natural world – with gemstones and flowers – makes English society’s lack of social mobility seem natural, even inevitable. If these obscure farm labourers are truly like flowers that ‘blush unseen’, i.e. they perform their duty and function without anyone appreciating them, then that is fine: they are, after all, ‘born’ to do so. What’s more, as Empson also highlights, ‘a gem does not mind being in a cave and a flower prefers not to be picked; we feel that man is like the flower, as short-lived, natural, and valuable, and this tricks us into feeling that he is better off without opportunities’. Gray’s ‘Elegy’ certainly offers no proposed replacement for the Way Things Are.

Yet for all that, there are moments in Gray’s ‘Elegy’ where he clearly wishes us to reflect on the fact that ‘nobility’ may not be a birth-right but a way of living, and that talent does not exist solely among the wealthy and the privileged: it’s just that the wealthy and privileged are the ones who have the means and time to nurture their talents:

Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Note the word ‘noble’: these would-be Miltons or Cromwells might have endured ‘Penury’ or poverty, but their rage or righteousness was truly ‘noble’, for all that. This is, in the last analysis, the true meaning and heart of Gray’s ‘Elegy’: whether or not it’s a good thing that so many promising talents go unnoticed and uncultivated, many people pass lives of quiet dignity and rustic simplicity. And which of us, when visiting a country churchyard, has not spared a thought for the unknown men and women whose simple lives are commemorated by mere names and dates?

Image (top): Thomas Gray portrait by Benjamin Wilson (1721-1788), via Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): St Giles’ churchyard at Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire (credit: Michael Garlick, 2016), via geograph.org.uk.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on June 22, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on D.B. Mauldin and commented:
    Interesting Literature

  2. Another book you may not have heard of whose title is taken from the poem is
    The Ancient Solitary Reign by Martin Hocke and yes it is about owls.

  3. Such a classic poem! Wonderful post.

  4. I love this poem. I had to memorize it in graduate school. I still can quote large chunks of it. Thank you for sharing!

    Tyler Tichelaar

  5. If we were all famous then there would be no famous or we would have to invent a new category of super-famous. Some stars are bright, others faint and millions more invisible.

  6. ah… to read this favorite again (with a different eye) is such a joy.

  1. Pingback: 10 of the Best Poems about Churches | Interesting Literature

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