An Elegy to the Dead and the Responsibility of the Living: “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray
Death, as much of a universal life event as grief or trauma, is anticipated by humanity and understood as an inevitability. Unlike grief, however, when death happens to you there is no opportunity for relief or ability to recover. That job is delegated to the living; to the poets, priests and the grievers of the dead. Thomas Gray takes on this job, but not to gain knowledge or acceptance of the event of death, but to elegize it. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” may not have been written for public consumption, but its publication and popularity attest to the elegy’s universality and the exactness with which Gray captures the sentimentalities of the late 18th-century. However, I’ll argue that Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was written in a state of introversion and, thus, is primarily concerned with the responsibilities allotted to the living and how they might be able to recover the legacies of those in their lives who have died.
Gray may not have been able to predict any forthcoming obsessions with the macabre and the uncanny in western art and literature, but he did understand the link between introversion, or retirement, and the contemplation a poet must indulge in in order to write about death. His elegy starts with this retirement:
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. (1-4)
Gray’s speaker evokes darkness in the opening line and then observes how dusk acts as a curfew for the workers and living creatures of the world to turn in for the night. The inevitable end of a day is how Gray opens the elegy and he continues into the country churchyard with only darkness and himself. With darkness already evoked and welcomed, the speaker begins to evoke the dead. As a poet, Gray has options for how to evoke the dead and the conclusions to be made about how the dead once lived or where they may have gone after their death, but “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” has no clear motive toward unveiling any answers. The dead evoked are the “rude forefathers of the hamlet” (16), the rural poor, who are buried in the churchyard. There is sympathy toward them, but there is also indifference. Sympathy is felt in these lines: “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” (18-20). Their deafness to the sounds of the living echoes the opening line of the curfew knell which called for the living to retire and it reiterates the finality of death. They obeyed the final knell of parting day and no longer are they are able to rise from their lowly bed. This finality, and the sympathy aroused from this image, could lend itself to an argument on how life should be spent or it may even inspire fear, but Gray moves on with his indifference.
If the dead are remembered through their loved ones, then sympathy on the speaker’s part is not realistic. The speaker rationalizes his indifference toward the rural dead by writing:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave. (33-36)
Should the poor, then, be any more worth our sympathy than the rich, the beautiful or powerful? In this case, Gray is admitting that the answer is not as important as the sympathy itself. Everything alive “awaits” the “inevitable hour”, and so attributes they had in life will be buried unless they are remembered through mourning. The poor may have had an unfair advantage in being unable to achieve power or wealth, but Gray posits no solution as the dilemma has no tangible meaning in his context of solemn contemplation.
Gray’s central concern for the dead, and his main purpose of evoking the dead at all, is expressed in this stanza:
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. (89-92)
Here, grief is the central way the dead can stay in touch with nature and the “wonted fires” of daily life. Their soul requires fondness and tears from those they love in order to be successfully parted from the world, and the grief itself is what determines how the dead are immortalized. As in any life event, the trauma of loss requires room for recovery and relief. The afterlife may not provide relief for the dead, but they can be elegized in life.
As with any contemplation on death, thoughts will likely turn inwards towards the inevitability of one’s own death. Such is the case for the speaker, who imagines how he may be remembered once he’s dead and buried. He imagines spectators saying:
“The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou can’st read) the lay,
Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.” (113-116)
By imagining his own death and his burial in the churchyard, the speaker envisions how he’d be remembered by those who remembered him walking in the very same churchyard while he was alive. This is another turn inwards and, by evoking these spectators, he is including himself in the cycle. Since he has elegized the living, he may now be elegized by those who have sympathy for him. There is hardly any curiosity for what may happen to him in the afterlife, but there is a certainty in knowing he will be remembered. And thus, his legacy, in part, is left to them.
Poetry is an art that demands levels of introversion and retirement from the business of society. Contemplating death, grieving, and understanding the realities of mortality also require introversion and so it is inevitable that poetry and thoughts on death may coexist. Perhaps it’s this inevitability that creates such a union between macabre thoughts of death and forms of art, such as poetry and literature. In any case, Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” strikes a chord with the 18th-century public and persists in popularity due to its universal concerns on being remembered after death. Gray uses retirement and introversion to his advantage in this case, and makes a strong case for the responsibilities allotted to the living: we owe our dead our sympathy and offer them comfort simply through remembrance.
© 2018 Rachel Rosenthal