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Monday, April 12, 2010

Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

(K. Lambert)

"Elegy in a Country Churchyard" was written by Thomas Gray, who lived from 1716 to 1771. The poem was written in 1750 and is set in a churchyard. The poem portrays Gray’s thoughts on death and how it is perceived. As it is shown in the title, the poem is an elegy, which is a mournful poem or a lament for the dead. This elegy is made up of 29 stanzas, not including the epitaph at the end. Each of the stanzas is written in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of abab. This form of poetry is known as a heroic quatrain, and after this poem became popular many people referred to it as an elegiac stanza.

The first 3 stanzas of the poem describe the ending of a day and the stillness of the night. Gray mentions that as the curfew bell sounds he notices a herd of cattle moving across the meadow and a plowman leave his land and go home. He also tells of how the land appears to fade away as the darkness comes. A few exceptions that he gives to the stillness of the night are the beetles that come out at night and the owl that “does to the moon complain” about people coming to close to her hidden home, which is also an example of personification (line 10).

The graves in the cemetery are first mentioned in the fourth stanza, which is what the rest of the poem is about. Throughout the next few stanzas Gray names some things that the dead can no longer experience. A few of the things he names are; the smells and sounds of the morning that will no longer wake him, the warmth of a burning fireplace, the love of the his family, and the joys of harvesting his own crops. The things that Gray mentions are simple things that we all take for granted. Ambition and Grandeur are personified in the eighth stanza. He says to “not let Ambition mock their useful toil, their homely joys, and destiny obscure; nor Grandeur here with a disdainful smile the short simple annuls of the poor” (lines 29-32). He provides explanation in the following stanza by stating that “all paths of glory lead to the grave” (line 36). Gray uses the next few stanzas to show that Death doesn’t care how rich people are or how many awards they received in their lives. In lines 57-60 Gray states “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,” and purposely leaves out their accomplishments to make them seem more average like everyone else.

Thomas Gray uses this elegy to make the common man seem like more of an equal to the nobles. The main point he makes is that no matter what a people accomplish in their lives they are all going to end up in the same place. He even shows that on the headstones throughout the cemetery, only names and dates appear, which are occasionally followed by a bible verse. There is no mention of what that person accomplished in his or her life.

The epitaph at the end of the poem basically states that the man buried in that particular grave was neither rich nor well-known, but that he was a scholar and that he was ok with that. It also says that he had a good life even though he went through many rough times. This is shown in lines 123 and 124 which state, “He gave misery all he had, a tear, He gained from Heaven (‘twas all he wished) a friend.” The last stanza of the epitaph says to not look for his merits or his faults, because they are with him in Heaven.

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