Explanation of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a poem written by Thomas Gray.

Stanza-Wise Explanation

Stanza 1

The ringing of the evening bell marks the close of the day. The sheep walk slowly in a winding course over the pastureland, producing their natural sounds. The farmer is returning home with a heavy step, tired of the day’s work. The darkness of the night is descending upon the world, and I find myself quite alone.

Stanza 2

The fields and other sights, which were dimly visible (in the twilight), are now becoming invisible to the eyes. The air is full of silence and solemnity. The only audible sounds are the dull, humming sound of the beetle which is flying about in circles, and the tinkling of bells round the necks of sheep who are slowly falling asleep in their distant folds (enclosures where sheep are kept during the night).

Stanza 3

Another sound that can be heard is the occasional hooting of the gloomy and lonely owl which cries whenever it is disturbed by some unfriendly creature, as if the owl were complaining to the moon about undue interference with its privacy in the church-tower where it has always been an undisputed monarch.

Stanza 4

Under the elm trees with their rough trunks and in the shadow of the huge yew tree (in the churchyard) are many grass-covered graves containing the bodies of the rustic ancestors of this village. Each dead man lies in his narrow grave in eternal sleep, his body turned to dust.

Stanza 5

Neither the call of the morning breeze laden with sweet smells, nor the twittering of a swallow from the mud-and-straw shed, nor the loud and shrill crowing of the cock serving as a bugle, nor the echoing horn of the huntsman will ever awaken these dead men from their humble graves.

Stanza 6

They will no more warm themselves before the bright fire burning in the fire-places in their homes. No housewives will be busy in their evening duties to make them comfortable and to attend to their needs. They will no longer return home to be greeted by their children speaking in an imperfect, childish manner. No more will their children climb to their knees and compete with one another in receiving the paternal kiss.

Stanza 7

Often did these men reap the harvest with their sickles. Often did the extremely hard soil yield to their plough with which they furrowed the earth. How cheerful they used to drive to the fields their teams of horses or oxen, harnessed together! How they used to cut down the trees with powerful blows from their axes !

Stanza 8

Let not ambitious persons belittle the useful labours of these men, their simple pleasures, and their unknown (or inconspicuous) existence. Let not the grand people listen to the brief and humble story of these poor men’s lives with a scornful smile.

Stanza 9

Persons who are proud of their ancient and high descent, persons who make a display of their authority, persons who possess beauty or good looks, and persons who enjoy all the pleasures that wealth can buy–all these will one day fall victims to death which cannot be avoided. All the spectacular exploits of a man or his military conquests must ultimately lead him to death.

Stanza 10

O you proud people, you should not blame these humble men (who lie buried in their graves here) if their friends or relatives did not erect any statues or other memorials along the long corridor of the church under the arched and beautifully carved ceiling which echoes the high-sounding, sacred music of the choir.

Stanza 11

No matter how vividly a dead man’s life may be depicted on an urn or how life-like the statue of a dead man may be, it is impossible to bring back the departed soul to its body. Tributes paid to a dead man will not in the least stir his lifeless body, and words of praise will not be heard by his deaf ears.

Stanza 12

Perhaps in this unknown or obscure churchyard there lies a dead man whose heart at one time was full of heavenly inspiration, or one who was fit to rule as a sovereign over an empire, or one who might have developed into a musician with exceptional skill for playing on the lyre.

Stanza 13

But the vast, rich and accumulated knowledge of centuries remained locked to their eyes. Extreme poverty with its chilling effect extinguished their holy or religious enthusiasm as well as the warm and generous impulses of their hearts.

Stanza 14

Many gems exquisitely beautiful and exceptionally bright lie hidden in the dark depths of the bottomless ocean. Many beautiful flowers bloom in the wilderness where nobody can either see their blushing charm or smell their sweet fragrance.

Stanza 15

Perhaps there lies in this village churchyard someone who was fearless and brave like John Hampden. If John Hampden courageously refused to pay the ship-money during the reign of Charles I, someone lying buried here might have defied a cruel and unjust task master in the fields. Or, there may be lying buried here someone who possessed a hidden poetic gift equalling that of Milton but whose gift found no opportunity to show itself. Perhaps there lies here someone who, under different circumstances, might, like Oliver Cromwell, have plunged his country into a civil war and caused heavy bloodshed.

Stanza 16

Their humble destiny did not allow them to addres parliaments and win applause with their brilliant oratory. Nor were they in a position to defy threats of destruction from enemy nations. Likewise, their humble position prevented them from exerting themselves for the happiness and prosperity of their country and reading in the eyes of their nation that look of contentment and joy which is a proof of the success with which the leaders have governed their country.

Stanza 17

It was not only their latent gifts which remained suppressed by their poverty. Their poverty also made it impossible for them to perform any wicked acts. Their poverty made it impossible for them to cause bloodshed in the world in order to capture a throne. Their poverty prevented them from committing acts of barbaric cruelty to mankind.

Stanza 18

Their humble destiny also prevented them from suppressing truth which always seeks to come out and become known. They did not commit any sins of which they had need to feel ashamed. Nor did they degrade themselves by dedicating their poems to wealthy and luxury-loving patrons in words of fulsome praise or extravagant flattery.

Stanza 19

These men lived far from the scenes of feverish struggle and restless activity in crowded cities dominated by sin. They had simple, humble desires and they kept away from evil courses. They lived in the peaceful retirement of the country-side and they never deviated from the peaceful path of a simple existence.

Stanza 20

(But though these men lived unknown lives), yet some sort of humble memorial does exist even for them to protect them from the disgrace of utter forgetfulness. Their graves are, as it were, adorned with carved stones bearing inscriptions in their memory. True that the stones are badly carved and the inscriptions are couched in awkward verses, but a chance passer-by would read these inscriptions which would ask for his sympathy to be expressed through a sigh that would also serve as a homage to the dead.

Stanza 21

The names and the ages of these dead men have been recorded on their tombstones by some illiterate engraver who has mis-spelt many words; but these engravings serve to commemorate the dead men and may be regarded as a substitute for poetic lamentations on their death. Besides these inscriptions, many scriptural texts have also been engraved on the tombstones. These holy texts, by preaching the vanity of human life, would induce in a thoughtful villager the desire for death!

Stanza 22

Is there any human being who, knowing that death will completely destroy his name, does not have the desire to be remembered after death ? This life has its pleasures and its pains. But was there ever a man who departed from this warm and happy world without casting a regrettul look upon it and without wishing to be remembered?

Stanza 23

When dying, a man seeks comfort from some loving friend or relative. The dying man feels some consolation on seeing tears of sympathy and affection in the eyes of near and dear ones. Even when one is dead, this natural desire for loving remembrance is keenly felt. And when all is dust and ashes, the keen desire for remembrance that lived in the body still lives on (and finds its satisfaction in the inscriptions on tombs).

Stanza 24

I, who have not ignored the humble and unknown men lying buried here, have narrated their simple story in this poem. It is quite possible that one day somebody, with a temperament similar to my own, will in a mood of lonely reflection make inquiries about my fate (when I am dead).

Stanza 25

Perhaps some gray-haired native of this village will say (to the inquirer), “I have often seen that man early in the morning walking with hurried steps over the dewy ground to greet the rising sun from the grassy top of the hill.

Stanza 26

“There at the foot of that beech tree with its branches hanging downwards and with its aged and odd-looking roots twined high, he used to stretch his tired limbs at noon-time and used to gaze thoughtfully at the stream that flows close by with a murmuring sound.

Stanza 27

“He was in the habit of roaming about near the wood there and speaking out his whimsical ideas (or fantastic notions) to himself, sometimes smiling scornfully, sometimes looking sorrowful and pale, with his head hanging downwards, like a lonely and friendless man, or like someone tormented by anxiety, or like a frustrated lover.

Stanza 28

“One day I failed to see him on the hill where he was generally seen. I did not see him on the open tract of land or near the beech tree of which he was very fond. Another morning came, but still I did not see him near the stream, or on the lawn or near the wood.

Stanza 29

“The next day we saw his dead body being carried towards the church in a sad procession, with the mourners chanting appropriate funeral songs. You are an educated man. Go near the grave beneath that old hawthorn tree and read the verses engraved on the tombstone?’

The Epitaph

Stanza 30

“Here in this grave lies buried a young man who achieved no fame and upon whom fortune did not smile. In spite of his humble birth, he acquired knowledge and learning; but he was destined to live a melancholy life.

Stanza 31

“‘This man had a generous and sincere heart. God richly rewarded him (for his virtues). He had a sympathetic heart, and the sight of misery used to move him to tears. God was his protector, and this was all he desired.

Stanza 32

“Make no further effort to describe his virtues or his weaknesses now that he is dead and buried in his grave. There, in his grave, lie his virtues trembling with a hope to be rewarded, and his faults trembling with a hope to be forgiven, by the merciful Lord God who is his Father.’

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