Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray
Table of Contents
The exact date of the composition of the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is uncertain; in fact it was not composed at one time, or in continuation. It was composed in parts, and with long intervals of time, and passing through various alterations and versions, assumed its present form. It is generally believed that it was begun at Stoke Poges in 1742 and completed eight years after in 1750.
Context of the Poem
The immediate inspiration for the Elegy came from the graves in the churchyard at Stoke Poges, the other inspiration for it might have been the early death of Richard West (1742), one of Gray’s most intimate friends. It is by common consensus the greatest poetic achievement of Gray, and one of the greatest and most popular poems in the English language.
The poem was written or meditated in the churchyard at Stoke Poges where Gray often visited members of his family. There he wandered all alone in fields and lanes in a pensive and melancholy mood. The countryside was rich in scenic beauty and natural sounds, and the poet felt a natural inclination towards them. He retained them in his memory, and described them with vividness and accuracy in the poem. The place was also very suitable for Gray’s contemplative musings on human life and destiny.
There is, however, no need to ‘localize’ the poem. The feelings and thoughts expressed in it are permanent and universal, and might have been inspired by any country churchyard. Gray sings of the miserable lot of the humble, poor, and neglected village folks, such as may be found anywhere in the world, and probably will continue to be found as long as the world and the civilization survive. Gray’s sympathy for them is sincere, his feelings genuine, his outlook philosophical, his tone contemplative, and his emotions calm and controlled.
Popularity of the Poem
It is indeed, one of the five greatest elegies in English literature the other four being Milton’s Lycidas, Shelley’s Adonais, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and Matthew Arnold’s Thursis. Its popularity is due both to its theme and poetic technique. It arouses a kindred feeling in every human being: both the rich and the poor feel that somehow it touches the deepest chords in their hearts. It also contains some of the best-known lines in English literature. The description of the supposed death of the melancholy and unknown youth in the closing stanzas of the poem may refer to Gray’s fears about his own poetic destiny, or to the early death of his friend Richard Westin
Summary of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Stanzas 1-3. Description of the scenery around the churchyard in the evening
The poet is present in a village graveyard. It is the time of evening which means that it is a time of rest from the activities of the day. The evening bell in the church in ringing, and the cattle are moving slowly over pasture-land. The tired farmer is returning home. By and by the sun sets and the world is engulfed in darkness. The poet is left all alone. There is a deep silence all around, which is broken here and there by the sound of the beetle! or of the bells tied round the neck of the sheep. Another sound which breaks the deep silence of the place is that of the owl, the melancholy night bird, living in gloom and solitude. The solitary bird is hooting from time to time from the ivy-grown church tower, as if she were making a complaint to the moon against those trespassers who are wandering too near her hidden abode, and disturb her peace and annoy her.
Stanzas 4-7. The everlasting sleep of the villagers who are dead. Their activities during their life-time
The poet sees the graves of the villagers rising here and there in mounds. These are all the graves of the simple, poor, uneducated and uncultured ancestors of the village who are sleeping the everlasting sleep of death. The fresh and fragrant morning airs, the twittering of the swallows, the crowing of the cock, or the bugle of the huntsmen will never waken them from their sleep. Nobody now waits for them to return home in the evening. Their wives do not make preparations to receive their husbands in the evening, and their children do not run forward and jump on their knees to be the first to be patted and kissed by their fathers. The villagers, when alive, were happy in performing their simple, yet strenuous, duties Some of their duties were to cut the ripe crops with their scythes, to plough and cultivate the fields, and to hew down the trees by the powerful strokes of their axes.
Stanzas 8-11. Death is the end of life. The pride of earthly power and glory is vain
The ambitious, great and high-born people should not smile scornfully at hearing the life-story of the peasants which was indeed short, simple and uneventful. The rustics were happy in their poor and simple life, and nobody should make fun of them Death is the end of life. The pride of belonging to a noble, rich and aristocratic family is meaningless. All the benefits and privileges enjoyed by the beautiful and the rich have no value. Death is all-conquering, and waits for all alike. The paths that seem to lead to glory lead only to the grave.
The rich and the poor are all alike consumed by Death. The proud people of the world should not blame these poor rustics if their friends and relatives did not erect any monuments over their graves to commemorate them. It is indeed not their fault. The bodies of the rich men are generally buried inside the church where, through the long passages and under the arched ornamented roofs, the loud sounds of music of the hymns could be heard which are sung in chorus in honour and praise of the departed. No such songs are sung in honour of these poor rustics.
What is the use of erecting monuments over the graves of the dead? Can beautiful urns with inscriptions on them, and life-like statues bring back the dead to life again? No. The soul, when once it has left the body, can never come back into it again. However highly we may praise a man after his death, we can never stir his body to activity again, and no words of flattery can comfort and please his dead ears which have become lifeless and insensible.
Stanzas 12-16. For want of suitable opportunities the villagers could not achieve anything great in their lives. Their poverty prevented the development of their natural talents
The villagers did not find suitable opportunities to develop their natural talents. They were simple and poor people, and remained busy for the whole of their lives in their ordinary duties. Some of them might have great natural abilities, but they could never develop them to produce something of lasting value and significance. Some of them might have the ability to become great poets, or kings, or musicians. But it was not in their lot to achieve such greatness and distinction. They were also not allowed to educate themselves, and learn new things. The book of knowledge remained shut from their eyes. Extreme poverty quenched the warmth of generous feelings in their hearts.
There is a curious parallel between nature and man. In nature, there are countless jewels of perfect lustre and beauty, lying very deep in the ocean. They lie so deep that they can never be found out by man. Similarly, there are innumerable flowers growing and blossoming in the wilderness. They are perfect in beauty, shape, colour and fragrance. But all their beauty is wasted in the wilderness because there is nobody to see and enjoy it.
In the same way, there are countless men of rare natural abilities, but they never get a chance to develop and show them. The abilities lie hidden in their minds, and ultimately die with them. Among the rustics lying dead in the graveyard there might be one who had the fearless spirit of John Hampden, or the rare poetic gifs of Milton, or the statesmanship and military genius of Cromwell. But he could not develop his talents, and died in obscurity. Their humble position in life prevented the rustics from achieving any distinction in their lives. They remained unknown and obscure. They could not contribute anything to the development and growth of their country.
Stanzas 17-19. The rustics no doubt did not achieve any greatness in their lives, but they were also prevented from doing acts of wickedness and dishonour to achieve greatness
The humble lot of the rustics, no doubt, did not allow them to achieve any greatness in their lives, but it also restrained them from committing many sinful acts. Greatness is quite often achieved by tyranny and cruelty, and by adopting bad and undignified means. The poor rustics never tried to obtain kingship by massacring innocent people. They were never cruel and heartless, they had rather feelings of love, goodwill and sympathy for their fellowmen. They also never adopted undignified and ignoble means to achieve their selfish ends. They never stooped low in their lives. They never concealed a known truth; they were never guilty of an immoral act, and they never flattered rich and powerful people by composing poems of undeserved praise in their honour. They led a simple and peaceful life, and never deviated from the path of virtue and righteousness.
Stanzas 20–23. The inscriptions on tomb-stones are necessary to save a man from being completely forgotten. Every man, rich or poor, wants to be remembered after death
In spite of the fact that these villagers had an obscure and unknown life, some sort of memorials do exist over their graves to save them from the ignominy of being completely forgotten. These monuments, rudely and unskillfully made as they are, are good enough to preserve their memory and arouse the sympathy of the beholders for them. The verses inscribed on their tomb-stones are crude and clumsy no doubt, but they describe the man correctly. Here and there quotations from the Bible are also scattered which teach a man the meaning of life and death.
Why memorials are erected over the graves of the dead? Every man, both great and small, wants to be remembered after death. Nobody wants to die. Life may be full of pleasure and pain, but everybody wants to live as long as he can. The strong desire for remembrance, which a man cherished while he was alive, continues even after death. The thought that he will be remembered after death is a cause of solace to the dying man.
Stanzas 24-29. The poet becomes personal and begins to speak of himself. He reflects how he will be described after death
The poet becomes personal and begins to think of himself. Some man, having a reflective and sympathetic temperament like his own, may happen to come there, and enquire about the poet himself after his death. Some old villager would probably inform him that the poet was often seen in the past at day-break ascending the highlands to greet the rising sun from the top of the mountain. After reaching the upland lawn he used to lie down fully stretched and gaze intently at the small stream which flows nearby with a murmuring sound.
The poet was seen in different moods on the mountains sometimes he used to wander here and there, uttering his stray thoughts in loneliness, sometimes he looked distracted with cares and anxieties, and sometimes he looked like a disappointed lover. Life continued to pass in this manner when the day came when the poet died, and his dead body was buried in the graveyard. A few lines are inscribed on his tombstone which describe his character and personality very truthfully
Stanzas 30-32. The character and personality of the poet while he was alive
The poet, in his lifetime, was poor and unknown, but he had acquired sufficient knowledge, and was a man of melancholy disposition. He v very sincere and generous by nature, and had a sympathetic heart. He had his own merits and demerits. After death his soul is now with God who may forgive him for his virtues, and also punish him for his faults.