Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

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.

Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.

For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
“Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.

“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.

“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,
Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

“The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

THE EPITAPH

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.

Summary

The poem begins by describing the approach of evening with its darkness and its silence, which is unbroken except for some such sounds, as those of the droning of the beetle, the tinkling of sheep’s bells and the hooting of the owl. This darkness is conducive to mournful thoughts. Then it proceeds to speak of the poor people – the ancestors of the rustic population of the neighbourhood who lay deep buried under the elm and the yew in the country churchyard. 113Nothing can wake them from their everlasting sleep. They can no longer enjoy the family gathering round the fireplace when they returned home after the day’s work. These poor villagers did the humble work of cultivation.

The poet,then, requests the big and the great not to despise these poor peasants for their humble but useful work.He also requests them not to blame the poor peasants for their having no monuments erected over their graves inside the church, because, according to Gray , the poet, monuments of all kinds, tombstones with inscriptions, statues, honours, tributes are helpless to recall the dead back to life. Speaking of these peasants, the poet says, that some of these poor peasants could have been great rulers or statesmen, famous musicians or poets, if they had not been ignorant and poor. Yet cases of potential greatness are common enough, for beautiful pearls lie at the bottom unseen in the wilderness. This country churchyard may contain the grave of one who could become a popular hero like Hampden or an immortal poet like Milton or a military genius like Cromwell,but their humble lot denied them a chance of becoming great orators or great martyrs or great benefactors of their country. But, then, their humble lot, while preventing the development of their virtues, limited the nature and extent of their vices as well, so that they were saved from becoming bloody usurpers or merciless tyrants.

It saved them likewise from showing a callous disregard of truth and honesty and from becoming mean flatterers of the great. These gravestones of the poor show that their desire to be remembered after death is a desire common to all men. After Gray’s death too some people will talk of him, some may be curious even to visit his grave and to read the epitaph on his tomb.

Analysis

The Elegy 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 beautiful expresses feelings and thoughts that are common to the human breast. 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 current of 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 prose, it would have been equally popular.

Theme

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 depart 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 specially, the “Fatal Sisters’ and the “Descent of Odin’ composed before the publication of Perey’s ‘Reliques’ are, as it were, soundings 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 religous 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.

Musical Quality

The versification of Gray possesses 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 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 rythmical harmony and solemn musical effect

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