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Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" features 32 quatrains that naturally separate into eight self-contained movements. The final movement is a lovely epitaph devoted to an unknown country youth.

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

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

Now fades the glimmering 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 tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand'ring near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mold'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 bowed 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 pomps of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Await alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through 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 honor's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or flattery 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 swayed,
Or waked 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 repressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower 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 listening senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
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 learned to stray;
Along the cool requestered 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 rimes and shapeless sculpture decked,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th' unlettered 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 resigned,
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' unhonored 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 crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless love.

"One morn I missed him on the customed 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 through the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay
Graved 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;
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to misery all he had, a tear,
He gain'd from heaven,'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.

Reading of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

Commentary

Thomas Gray's speaker is offering a tribute to the simple folk who tended the land in this beautiful scene of country landscape. The speaker is musing upon the life and death of these rustic, simple folk in the pastoral, rustic setting.

First Movement: Serene Landscape

In the opening movement, the speaker describes the serene landscape surrounding the cemetery which he will be visiting. A herd of cows is moving slowly over the meadow. A farmer is leaving his plowing to head home, "leaving the world to darkness and to" the speaker. It is dusk and the landscape seems to glimmer in the still air.

Except for a few complaining beetles and an "moping owl," all is quiet. The speaker approaches the graves of the village "forefathers," who rest beneath "rugged elms."

Second Movement: No More Cultivation

Those resting forefathers will never again be roused by the noise of the twitter of swallows or the call of the roosters. They will never again be experiencing their home life with "blazing hearth," care of the wives, and interaction with their children.

No longer will the land that they cultivated be turned by their plow. No more will the fields be tended by their careful, cheerful hands.

Third Movement: Simple Folk

These men were simple folk who did not seek ambition trade and fame. They lived, loved, farmed their land and enjoyed the rustic life. The speaker wishes to forestall any negative criticism of these simple farmers, as such folk are often looked down upon by city-folk, calling them rubes and provincials.

But the speaker makes it clear that no matter how high and mighty the ambitious become, they all end up in the same place as these simple folk because "The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

The speaker speculates that among these country folk there might even be those who could have easily performed the tasks of emperors or that of talented lyre playing poets. And perhaps there were those who did harbor such ambitions.

Fourth Movement: Unspoiled by Social Ills

In the fourth movement, the speaker elaborates on his assertion from the third movement. Because these rustic men never became enamored by knowledge of seeking ambitious titles and such, they remained unspoiled by many of the ills of society.

They remained like uncultured gems and flowers that were never seen but flourished. There might have been those who could have performed as a Milton or a Cromwell, or who could have served in government, or even conquered lands, thus adding their names to the nation's historical record.

Fifth Movement: The Life Within

The speaker now concedes that if among these gentle folk some dark tendencies prevailed, their way of life precluded their acting upon those evil tendencies. They were "Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne.” Because they lived and moved "Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife," they experienced a life wherein, "Their sober wishes never learned to stray."

They were, in fact, protected. However, some of the grave markers profess "uncouth rimes and shapeless sculpture." This fact, while not dismaying, does arouse a "sigh" in the passersby.

Sixth Movement: Honoring the Rustic Dead

The speaker has noted that some of the names of the interred have been displayed by the "unlettered," meaning that they are misspelled. But the gravestone also contained many biblical passages which "teach the rustic moralist to die.”

These "unhonored dead," however, deserve to be honored, at least, by a reverent thought or prayer. If their history must remain hidden, at least a thought or two sent their way would give them honor as "some kindred Spirit shall inquire" about their lives.

Seventh Movement: A Rustic Soliloquy

In the seventh movement, the speaker composes a likely soliloquy by "some hoary-headed swain," who might share a brief summary of one of the rustic's manner, where he had roamed, how he might behaved, what he might have thought as he made his way through his day.

Then the rustic was missed and replaced by another like him. The imaginary speaker reports that they bore his man "through the church-way path." and the speaker asks his listener to read the song that is engraved on the man's "stone beneath yon aged thorn."

Eighth Movement: Simple Country Folk

The final three quatrains making up the final movement and titled, "The Epitaph," is dedicated to "A youth, to fortune and to fame unknown." The youth "rests his head upon the lap of earth." He represents the simple country folk who are of "humble birth.”

He laughed, he cried, and he had a "soul sincere." To honor him, one need only acknowledge his having existed and realize that he now rests upon the "bosom of his father and his God."

Questions & Answers

Question: Who is the youth to whom this epitaph is dedicated?

Answer: In Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," the epitaph is dedicated to an unknown country youth; the speaker does not name any specific individual.

Question: What is happening in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"?

Answer: Thomas Gray's speaker is offering a tribute to the simple folk who tended the land in this beautiful scene of country landscape. The speaker is musing upon the life and death of these rustic, simple folk in the pastoral, rustic setting.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on May 26, 2016:

Wow, good question! I'll try to research it and find out; I'd like to know also.

mactavers on May 26, 2016:

I have not read this poem for many years. I wonder if it is still being taught. Great insights.