Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is written by Thomas Gray. It is perhaps the most widely known poem in English. With the exception of certain works of Byron and Shakespeare, no English poem has been so widely admired and imitated abroad. What is the secret of this extensive popularity? The answer to its perhaps is that it beautifully expresses feelings and thoughts that are common to the human breast. The pathetic composition as it is, it describes to us our own grief and our own sufferings. It is indeed, a cry of human sympathy.
It always finds some disposition of our mind favourable to receive it, some passion which cannot resist its power and some feelings which participate in its sorrow. In the thoughts of the Elegy, there is nothing that is rare or exceptional or out of the common way. In the reflections of the elegy, it is difficult to conceive of anyone musing under similar circumstances who should not muse in the way Gray has done. There are some feelings and thoughts that cannot grow old. The mystery of life does not become clearer, or less solemn and awful, for any amount of contemplation. Such questions inevitable and everlasting as they are, do rise in the mind when one reflects on Death, and they can never lose their freshness, never cease to fascinate and move us.
It is with such questions that the Elegy deals. It deals with them in no lofty philosophical manner, but in a simple, humble, homely way, always with the trust and broadest humanity. The poet’s thoughts turn to the poor; he forgets the find tombs inside the church and thinks only of the mouldering heaps” in the churchyard outside. In dealing with them, he faces problems, – problems of the brevity of life, of the certainty of pain, of death and of the helplessness of man. And in these problems, he keeps on brooding and his meditations take a deeper and more universal meaning. The Elegy, therefore, is the outcome of the lonely meditations and musings of his obscure and secluded life. It is a poem, which has reached the hearts of mankind.
There are other merits which this poem possesses, and these merits go to add to the popularity of this poem. It possesses the charm of incomparable felicity of a melody that is not too subtle to delight every hearer, of a moral persuasiveness that appeals to every generation and of a metrical skill that in each line proclaims the master. Gray himself was, however, of the opinion that the popularity of the Elegy was due to the subject and if the subject had been treated of in the prose, it would have been equally popular.
Gray is considered to be the most original of all the transitional poets in the selection of his themes. It is in his poetry that we have, for the first time, a departure from the treatment of urban life. Poetry of the classical age, written under the inspiration of Alexander Pope, is purely related to the depiction of urban life, the fashions of the ladies and the manners of the Court. Gray is the first poet who departs from this beaten track of town life and concentrates his attention on the Middle Ages and the Norse and Scandinavian mythology. His originality is endorsed by Gazamian who writes that “he was the first to feel the attraction of the Middle Ages and of Scandinavian antiquity …… The‘Bard’, and especially, the “Fatal Sisters’ and the “Descent of Odin’ composed before the publication of Perey’s ‘Reliques’ are, as it were, soundings were taken in medieval superstition, of primitive legends and beliefs of simple and popular wonder, the depth and fecundity of which were to be gradually realized.”
Love of Nature
Gray was alive to the external manifestations of Nature and observed them curiously, as is clear from his reflections in his poems. Instead of being fresh and new, his visions of Nature are discreet and pretty. They are objective. The sublimity of the Alps and the religious horror of high mountains are frank expressions of his visions,-things as others would see them. Again, in the opening lines of the “Elegy”, he presents the close of the day remarkably and beautifully.
The versification of Gray possesses the exquisite musical sweetness and about his diction, he himself tells that “the style I have aimed at is extreme conciseness of expression yet pure perspicuous and musical.” Gray’s style has the dignity of Milton and the stately march of his verse resemble that of Dryden. The fondness of elegance coupled with the use of musical cadences, which is the characteristic trait of Gray, imparts to his poem a rich rhythmical harmony and solemn musical effect