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

Updated on October 8, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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.

Thomas Gray

Source

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

Commentary

Gray's elegy offers a beautiful scene of the country landscape, as the speaker muses upon the life and death of rustic, simple folk in the pastoral setting.

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.

First Movement: "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day"

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: "The breezy call of incense-breathing morn"

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: "Let not Ambition mock their useful toil"

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: "But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page"

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: "Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone"

The speaker now concedes that if among these gently 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: "Their name, their years, spelt by the unlettered muse"

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: "Haply some hoary-headed swain may say"

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: "The Epitaph"

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."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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      Linda Sue Grimes 17 months ago from Spring Hill, TN

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

    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 17 months ago

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