Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

Thomas Gray was the author behind Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which has proven to be a timeless literary piece. Written and published in the 18th century, the said poem generally contemplates on death and morality. However, it does not speak of merely any kind of death. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard mourns the loss of the common village folk, and the idea of loss discussed in the poem is that of the dreams and opportunities that have been lost and unfulfilled by the common villager because of death. An elegy is a poem that mourns or grieves the deceased (Napierkowski).

From the title itself, it can be derived that the poem is about death. However, Thomas Gray wrote the poem in such a way that the question of morality is focused on a single subject: the common man (Napierkowski). Gray points out that unlike artists, poets, politicians and celebrities, the common man dies without recognition, praise or applause. The author also dwells on the possibility of having a common man— who eventually dies— to actually gain similar recognition given to more famous or richer people, but were never able to do so because of the loss of their life (Napierkowski).

The poem begins with the “parting day,” or the end of the day (Gray; Cummings). The author describes the disappearing landscape, which is that of the country churchyard, at dusk (Jung). Not until the third stanza within the poem is when reference to the dead is mentioned. It also states the underneath the trees are the graves of the “forefathers” (Gray). In the sixth stanza, Gray wrote, “Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,/ Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke. ” These two lines introduce the common people in the poem, and these folks are portrayed as workers of the land.
Sickle is an instrument used in harvest; it is most distinguished for its blade which is shaped like a crescent (Cummings). Furrow refers to the indentation created by a plow for purposes of planting. The word “glebe” means “earth” (Cummings). In the seventh stanza, the speaker starts his defense of common men. Gray wrote, “Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,/Their homely joys, and destiny obscure. ” This means that the hard work, simple desires and unrecognized efforts of common man must not be looked down upon.
Gray continued, “Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile/ The short and simple annals of the poor. ” The “Grandeur” referred to in this line are the wealthy and powerful; the speaker states that these people have no right to be critical of the lives of the poor (Cummings). In the eighth stanza, the speaker simply affirms that regardless of status in life, all people will die (Cummings). Gray therefore concluded that “The paths of glory lead but to the grave” (Cummings). The idea of loss in the poem is first conveyed in the twelfth stanza. The speaker begins to contemplate about the chances lost to common men.
Gray writes, “Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid/Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire. ” The speaker considers the possibility that the deceased common people were filled with dreams or goals when they were still alive. The last two lines of the stanza is as follows: “Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d/ Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre” (Gray). The phrase “rod of empire” refers to the possibility of common man to become either an emperor or king; the last line’s reference to the lyre implies the chance to be a musician (Cummings).
The thirteenth stanza points out two factors that contributed to the unfulfilled dreams of common men: the lack of knowledge and poverty. In the first line, “But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,” the speaker notes that the common men were not educated, which hindered their progress in life (Gray). The stanza’s third line reads, “Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage” (Gray). “Penury” in this line means poverty; their poverty also prevented them from acting on their passions, and eliminating their ambitions in the process (Gray; Cummings).
The fourteenth stanza contains the most identified lines in the entire poem (Cummings). It also expresses the intense despair the speaker felt about the lost opportunities for the common man. 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 (Gray). The speaker compares common men with ocean gems that have yet to be uncovered (Cummings). The next analogy is regarding flowers whose beauty is dulled by the desert; just like the flowers, the passions and talents of common people were dulled by circumstance.
In the fifteenth stanza, the speaker mentions significant figures whose footsteps the common men would have followed if only they were given the chance. Two of which were Hampden and Milton. John Hampden was considered as a hero; as he was brave enough to defy the authority of King Charles I (Cummings). Meanwhile, John Milton is a renowned poet. The speaker believed that the village could have produced similar personalities. The sixteenth to the eighteenth stanza expresses the advantages and disadvantages of the common people’s way of life.
Gray wrote, “Their lot forbad: nor circumscrib’d alone/ Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d. ” On one hand, the lot of common village folk forbade them from getting recognition from their virtues or contributions to society (Cummings). One of their contributions was their efforts to provide food, as they are mostly farmers. This remains unnoticed. On the other hand, their lot also forbade them to commit “crimes” they would have done if they were rich and powerful. The line “Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne” meant that their status in life also forbade them from resorting to violence to become king (Cummings).
Their lot also hindered them to “shut the gates of mercy on mankind,” which meant to show mercy to those who need it (Gray; Cummings). By the nineteenth stanza, the speaker resumes in speaking about the life of the common village folk. According to Gray, “Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray. ” This meant that the common people remained in that kind of simple lifestyle (Cummings). Also, “They kept the noiseless tenor of their way” (Gray). This meant that they maintained the simplicity of their life (Cummings).
At death, the common villager will also have a “frail memorial” but “with uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d” (Gray). This means that the stone of the grave would only contain simple words, with no elaborate engravings or design. Despite this, it still “implores the passing tribute of a sigh” (Gray). However simple a gravestone is, it can still cause passersby to sigh (Cummings). The common village folk, unrecognized and destined to be forgotten can only depend on a friend to be remembered. As Gray wrote, “On some fond breast the parting soul relies.
” However, even at death, the common man seeks to be remembered (Cummings). As in the last lines of the twenty-third stanza: “E’en from the tomb the voice of Nature cries/ E’en in our ashes live their wonted fires” (Gray). Indeed, the poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray elevated the status and standing of common village folk. They may not have experienced fame and fortune as others had, but they deserved the same privileges if only they were given the chance. The death of a person is a cause for despair, but there is greater despair in not achieving what could have been done.
The loss spoken about in the poem is greater than death itself. Works Cited Cummings, Michael. Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard. 2003. 8 May 2008 <http://www. cummingsstudyguides. net/ThoGray. html>. Gray, Thomas. Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard. 2007. 8 May 2008 <http://www. blupete. com/Literature/Poetry/Elegy. htm>. Jung, Sandro. “Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard. ” The Literary Encyclopedia. 30 October 2002. 8 May 2008 <http://www. litencyc. com/php/sworks. php? rec=true&UID=5392>. Napierkowski, Marie Rose, ed. Poetry for Students. Detroit: Gale, 199

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