logotype

Poems

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751)

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman 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, wandering 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 mouldering 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 twittering 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 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.

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 Honour’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 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 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.

The 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 sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

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

Their name, their years, spelt by the 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 lingering look behind?

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

For thee, who, mindful of the unhonoured 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,
Muttering 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 favourite 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 frowned not on his humble birth,
And Melacholy marked 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 gained from Heaven (‘twas all he wished) 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.

 

Notes
Title. In classical Greek poetry, the term elegy designated a poetic composition that followed a specific metrical pattern (the elegiac couplet). The perception of the elegy as a poetic form that conveys the poet’s meditation on loss and death stems from the Renaissance. The churchyard chosen as the setting of the poem is in Stoke Poges (Buckinghamshire), which Gray knew very well and where he is buried.

Versification: The “Elegy” is written in heroic quatrains or elegiac stanzasthis stanza pattern takes its name from this very poem. The lines are iambic pentameters rhyming abab.

l. 1. Curfew: “the sounding of a bell at evening” (Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary). The first image in the poem is auditory; images belonging to this category, evoking the sounds of country life, abound in the opening stanzas: the tolling knell, the lowing herd, the droning beetle, the tinkling of cowbells, the hooting of the owl, the twittering swallow, the cock’s crow, the echoing horn, the voices of children.

l. 4. To darkness and to me. The phrase encapsulates two basic aspects of the poem: on the one hand, the imagery of dusk and darkness that pervades it; on the other, the introspective point of view, which marks a historical evolution in poetic tastes and prefigures Romantic subjectivism.

l. 10. The moping owl. In Ancient Greece, the owl was the symbol of Athene, the goddess of wisdom; accordingly, Western tradition has associated the owl with this quality. In the medieval English poem The Owl and the Nightingale (12th century), the two birds are symbolic of opposite attributes: wisdom versus frivolity, gravity versus cheerfulness, religion versus love.

l. 13. That yew-tree’s shade. The symbolism of trees in the poem (elm, yew, beech, thorn) is a fascinating aspect to explore. In England, yew trees are often planted in churchyards and cemeterieshence their symbolic association with death. But they are evergreen trees and therefore, they may also symbolise immortality.

l. 16. Rude: here meaning “rustic, unrefined, uncouth”.

l. 23. Their sire’s return. Gray chooses a male as a prototypical dead ancestor: the head of a country household whose main source of joy is an idyllic family life.

l. 26. Glebe: “a plot of cultivated land” (Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary).

l. 29. Ambition. This is the first of a number of capitalised nouns. Most of these key notions (Ambition, Grandeur, Memory, Honor, Flattery, and so on) are personified, which is reminiscent of medieval allegories, in which characters represent virtues or sins.

ll. 33-36. The boast of heraldry [...] but to the grave. In this stanza, three literary clichés rooted in classical literature converge: aequo pulsat pede, omnia mors aequat and sic transit gloria mundithese can be translated as “it stamps with the same foot / with equal force”, “death makes all equal” and “thus vanishes the glory of the world” respectively.

l. 41. Storied: bearing an inscription oroften narrativerelief.

ll. 51-52. The phrases “noble rage” and “genial current of the soul” bring to mind the Romantic emphasis on inspiration and the force of the creative genius.

l. 57. An anonymous countryman who may have rebelled against a tyrannical landowner is compared to John Hampden (1594-1643), a member of Parliament who heroically opposed Charles I’s taxation policies.

l. 59. The English poet John Milton (1608-1674) has a counterpart among the “rude Forefathers” as well: unlike the poet, who became blind in his fifties, this “inglorious Milton” is “mute”with this adjective, the poet also establishes a metonymical identification between silence and death.

l. 60. Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) became the main political figure after the execution of Charles I and his campaigns in Ireland and Scotland resulted in cruel bloodsheds. The man who is buried in the country churchyard may have resembled Cromwell in his determination or charisma, but he is “guiltless of his country’s blood”.

ll. 57-60. Interestingly, in the original manuscript, we read “Cato” for “Hampden”, “Tully” for “Milton” and “Caesar” for “Cromwell” (see note to line 57 of the poem at The Thomas Gray Archive, <http://www.thomasgray.org/>). Cato the Young (95-46 BC) was admired for his political honesty and courage; like “Tully” (Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BC), he stood against Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC). Gray finally chose three figures representative of English Republicanism. Lee Morrisey has interpreted the substitution as signalling an evolution from the exclusive emphasis on classical models, which characterises the first half of the 18th century, to the emergence of nationalistic pride: “a new, tentative sense that English history can stand on its own” (English Literature in Context, ed. Paul Poplawski, Cambridge: CUP, 2008, p. 251).

ll. 61-72. Remarkably, this sentence spans three whole stanzas.

l.73. Far from the madding crowd. The phrase has transcended the poem and become idiomatic. The novelist Thomas Hardy quoted the line in order to give a title to the first of his “Wessex novels”, published in 1874. Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, like Gray’s poem, has a pastoral and picturesque spatial setting.

ll. 73-74. Gray associates the simplicity of country life with a natural tendency to virtue, opposed to the temptations of excessive ambition or the dubious morality of more sophisticated social circles. According to Morrisey, these two lines hint at the negative consequences of urbanisation and the political upheaval that went with it: “maybe it would have been better for England to have kept to its rural course and, relatedly, not to have experienced the Civil Wars and Interregnum” (English Literature in Context, p. 251).

ll. 77-80. Although Samuel Johnson disliked Gray’s poetry, he praised the originality of these lines in his Lives of the Most Emminent English Poets: “I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here, persuades himself that he has always felt them” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, 2863).

ll.78-79. Some frail memorial [...] sculpture decked. In a previous stanza, Gray has linked the sphere of celebrity and public relevanceto which Hampden, Milton and Cromwell belongedwith the parallel world of the deceased “inglorious”, those who lived a dignified life in total anonimity. Similarly, he sets against the “storied urn” or “animated bust” (l. 41) of those who achieved fame and wealth, this “frail memorial” unprepossessing and of little artistic merit, but moving.

l. 84. Teach the rustic moralist to die. The line is reminiscent of the ars moriendi tradition (“the art of dying”). Books inspired by this philosophy were very popular during the Middle Ages and also, to some extent, during the Renaissance. Prayer and the reading of “many a holy text” (l. 83) were considered invaluable aids for the purpose of “dying well”.

l. 90. Some pious drops, i. e. the tears of the living for the dead.

ll. 93-94. The beginning of the stanza would seem to indicate that the poet is turning to the reader but, as the second verse line makes clear, “thee” is the poet, addressed by the lyrical speaker or main voice in the poem. In this way, Gray effectively includes himself and his readers in his vision of future death.

l. 95. If chance: if it should happen (that...).

l. 98. The use of the first person plural reinforces the opposition / parallelism between the communities of the livingto which the swain belongsand the deadto which the “rude Forefathers” belong.

ll. 105-108. The typical behaviour of a “frenzied poet”. The furor poeticus was assumed to come over the poet in Ancient Greece. The stanza echoes this classical notion, at the same time foreshadowing the Romantic identification of the furor poeticus with inspiration, which was given a central role.

ll. 120-121. The first line could be paraphrased as “he was blessed from birth with a fine intellect”. In the poems of the so-called “Pre-Romantics”, melancholy results from the awareness of social change, and specifically from one of its concomitants: the detachment from Nature. Decades later, the Romantics will continue to concern themselves with this idea and to give vent to their melancholy.