By Skylar Woods
Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard makes readers ponder about what truly happens after they die. Will they be remembered by loved ones with smiles and tears of joy? Or detested by all of mankind? Gray’s poem uses a simple four line stanza mixed with an ABAB rhyming pattern, placing stress on a template of certain syllables to allude to the dark capacity of human nature mixed with the potential to do good deeds. Alongside this rhyming pattern, Gray uses heavy symbolism from the literal environment to emphasize a complex idea of death and mortality, while also using comparisons to real life objects that are simple to understand. Finally, the simple word choice, capitalization, and personification of Death — and other emotions — are used to both simplify and simultaneously add depth to the meaning of each word.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard uses a simple, yet effective, ABAB rhyming pattern in four line stanzas. The simplicity of this pattern is ironic when contrasted with the deep meaning of the poem. As with most poems, there is a more complex substructure with stresses on certain syllables on every line. This stressing pattern can be seen very prominently: “The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide, / To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,” (Gray lines 69-70). There are light tongued words at the start of every line such as ‘to’, ‘the’, and ‘if’. Yet the start of the second word is always a heavy mouthed sound using letters that use a heavier tongue and the back of the throat to pronounce. The stresses on the words are in an alternating pattern between softly mouthed sounds. Gray uses this mixture of light and heavy syllables to emphasize the light and darkness every human being possesses.
The lighter syllables make the tongue come forward, closer to the exit of the mouth. This action shows that on the outside every person is trying to be praiseworthy and put on a fabricated, lighthearted smile — a smile that is made when the word ‘the’ is mouthed. The heavier words can only be made using the lungs like a ‘guh’ sound, a noise that can only be made using an internal body part. With this steady and relentless pattern found throughout the entire poem, Thomas Gray ironically adds structure while continuing to address the darkness found inside all human beings.
Gray uses the environment within the poem to conjure up a serene landscape that is starting to change into a darker, ghostly terrain. He does this to show how the very base of humanity can quickly morph into darkness. This begins almost at the very beginning of the poem: “Now fade the glimmering landscape on the sight, / And all the air a solemn stillness holds” (Lines 5-6). The very earth that the speaker is standing on is quickly blackened as the sun sets, symbolizing the very core pillars of mankind growing dark. In addition, within the poem, comparisons are made to simple images that represent deep complex emotions:
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. (Lines 53-56).
By making these simple comparisons, Gray is sayinging that internal darkness is on the ground floor of the physiological hierarchy. The meaning of the comparison above is that many people have the potential inside themselves to benefit humanity in the best of ways, yet never get a chance due to the “unfathomed caves of ocean bear” (54).
Finally, Gray personifies the emotions by capitalizing them. This simple technique is used to bring that idea of darkness to life within the reader’s mind. With line 36, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” this gives an overarching structure and warning within the poem. Every emotion that is personified and capitalized can be traced to a need for glory, such as Honour, Knowledge, and Pride, for this simplicity allows for a clearer warning to be given. The diction allows readers to comprehend the fear of darkness that is found within everyone:
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? (Lines 41-44)
No matter what social class a person is, no amount of honor, pride, or flattery can convince Death to spare a life. This stanza completely disintegrates all social, monetary, and rank boundaries.
This poem’s message is a warning that darkness is within every single person regardless of status, yet this darkness has only as much power as a person allows it. Each person has the power to change humanity for the best or worse depending on their desires.
Skylar Woods is a student at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he studies Creative Writing. He enjoys writing of all kinds but particularly finds pleasure in writing analysis essays and fiction stories and hopes to strengthen and expand his writing career in the future.
You can follow him on Twitter: @Skylarwoods13
Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard Summary
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Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a Restoration Period poem by Thomas Gray. An elegy, by strict definition, is usually a lament for the dead. Gray’s version of an elegy is slightly different—he writes about the inevitability and hollowness of death in general, instead of mourning one person. At first, the poem reflects on death in a mostly detached way, as someone who is resigned to death’s outcome. Yet, the epitaph he writes for himself at the end of the poem, reflects a fear of death. Elegy is a renowned English poem, regarded as one of the best of the time, and arguably of all time. It was popular when it was first written and was reprinted many times.
The speaker begins the poem by saying he is in a churchyard with a bell tolling for the end of the day, he uses this image as a metaphor for life and death. He describes the scenery around him, speaking of the sun setting, the church tower covered in ivy, and an owl hooting. He then focuses on the graveyard around him. He speaks of the men who are in the graves and how they were probably simple village folk. They’re dead and nothing will wake these villagers, not a rooster’s call in the morning, not twittering birds, and not the smell of the morning breeze. The speaker also laments that life’s pleasures will no longer be felt by those buried in the graveyard, especially emphasizing the joys of family life.
The dead villagers probably were farmers, and the speaker discusses how they probably enjoyed farming. He warns that although it sounds like a simple life, no one should mock a good honest working life as these men once had. No one should mock these men because in death, these arbitrary ideas of being wealthy or high-born do not matter. Fancy grave markers will not bring someone back to life, and neither will the honor of being well born.
The speaker then wonders about those in the graveyard who are buried in unmarked graves. He wonders if they were full of passion, or if they were potential world leaders who left the world too soon. He wonders if one was a beautiful lyre player, whose music could bring the lyre to life—literally. He laments for the poor villagers, as they were never able to learn much about the world. He uses metaphors to describe their lack of education, that knowledge as a book was never open to them, and that poverty froze their souls.
He speaks of those in the graveyard as unsung heroes, comparing them to gems that are never found, or flowers that bloom and are never seen. He wonders if some of the residents of the graveyard could have been historically relevant, but unable to shine. One could have been a mute Milton, the author of Paradise Lost; or one could have been like John Hampden, a politician who openly opposed the policies of King Charles. Alas, the speaker mourns again that these villagers were poor and unable to make their mark on the world.
But because they were poor, they were also innocent. They were not capable of regicide or being merciless. They were also incapable of hiding the truth, meaning they were honest with the world. The speaker notes that these people, because they were poor, will not even be remembered negatively. They lived far from cities and lived in the quiet. At least their graves are protected by simple grave markers, so people do not desecrate their burial places by accident. And the graves have enough meaning to the speaker that he will stop and reflect on their lives. The speaker wonders who leaves earth in death without wondering what they are leaving behind. Even the poor leave behind loved ones, and they need someone in their life who is pious to close their eyes upon death.
The speaker begins to wonder about himself in relation to these graveyard inhabitants. Even if these deceased villagers were poor, at least the speaker is elegizing them now. The speaker wonders who will elegize him. Maybe it will be someone like him, a kindred spirit, who wandered into the same graveyard. Possibly some grey-haired farmer, who would remark on having seen the speaker rush through the dew covered grass to watch the sun set on the meadow. The speaker continues to think of the imagined farmer, who would remember the speaker luxuriating on the strangely grown roots of a tree, while he watched the babbling brook. Maybe the farmer would think of how the speaker wandered through the woods looking pale with scorn and sorrow. Possibly the speaker was anxious, or was a victim of unrequited love. The speaker wonders if the farmer will notice he’s gone one day, that the farmer did not see him by his favorite tree, near the meadow, or by the woods. He speaks of his own funeral dirges and finally of his own epitaph.
In the speaker’s own epitaph, he remarks that he has died, unknown to both fame and fortune, as in he never became famous and was not well-born. But at least he was full of knowledge—he was a scholar and a poet. Yet oftentimes, the speaker could become depressed. But he was bighearted and sincere, so heaven paid him back for his good qualities by giving him a friend. His other good and bad qualities do not matter anymore, so he instructs people not to go looking for them since he hopes for a good life in heaven with God.