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Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

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English Literature

Who mourns the common and the ordinary people – the farmers, the blacksmiths, the fishermen, the butchers – who possess little in life and less in death? Thomas Gray takes on this challenge as he celebrates the lives of ordinary people in his 1751 “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The poem examines themes of life and death, status, and the natural world as the speaker contemplates the life and death of the poor and rich while also reflecting on his own mortality.

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” Overview

Written By

Thomas Gray

Publication Date

1751

Meter

Iambic Pentameter Quatrains

Rhyme Scheme

Heroic Quatrains (ABAB CDCD...)

Literary Devices

Personification

Alliteration

Imagery

Allusion

Rhetorical question

Euphemism

Synecdoche

Metaphor

Onomatopoeia

Frequently Noted Imagery

Curfew tolls the knell of parting day

The lowing herd wind slowly

Glimmring landscape

The beetle wheels his droning flight

Ivy-mantled towr

Moping owl

Rugged elms, yew-trees shade

Narrow cell

The swallow twittring from the straw-built shed

The cocks shrill clarion

Echoing horn

Blazing hearth

Pealing anthem swells the note of praise

Storied urn and animated bust

Dull cold ear of Death

Pregnant with celestial fire

A gem of purest ray serene

Dark unfathomd caves

The foot of yonder nodding beech

Brook that babbles by

Tone

Contemplative, slightly mournful

Key Themes

Universality of death

Social class and human value

Nature as a cyclical reflection of life

Meaning

Death is a universal experience indifferent to status, but life is a personal experience that depends entirely upon status.

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) was Thomas Gray’s most successful poem while he was alive, and today it is considered one of the finest elegies in English literature. Grays “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” differs from traditional elegies because it is not a reflection on the death of anyone in particular. Instead, it reflects on the general nature of death for common, or everyday, people.

Gray started writing “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” after the death of his closest friend Richard West in 1742. Gray was deeply self-critical and afraid of failure, so he shelved the poem for years. After his aunt died in November 1749 and his childhood friend Horace Walpole was nearly murdered by two highwaymen that same month, Gray began seriously contemplating his own mortality. He turned back to the poem he began with Wests death and built off those lines to create “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a poem that enabled him to consider his interpretation of the afterlife.

Gray moved to Stoke Poges near St Giles Parish Church, England, on June 3, 1750. He attended Sunday service there and visited his aunt’s grave. His mother and Gray himself were eventually buried there. That small country church is largely thought to be the setting of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”

The setting of 'Elegy' is a church cemetery in the country, Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard, StudySmarterThe setting of the poem is a church cemetery in the country, Pixabay

Gray finished “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” on June 12 and sent it to Walpole, who used his social position to circulate it throughout London society. By early 1751, Gray received word that it would be published in William Owen’s Magazine of Magazines on February 16 without Gray's permission. Walpole helped Gray get his own version of the poem printed on February 15. When Owen printed his version of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” the next day, it was full of errors and other issues.

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was ultimately printed twelve times and reproduced in various periodicals until 1765. It was included in Gray’s 1753 Six Poems collection, his 1757 Odes, and in Robert Dodsley’s 1755 collection.

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” Summary

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” reflects on the death of common people who live ordinary lives that largely go unnoticed. The speaker in the poem is walking through a rural cemetery at sunset, reflecting on his own mortality and that of the people buried there.

The graves are simple and lack the elaborate tombs of the wealthy and powerful. The speaker reflects on the simple lives these people must have lived, tending to their farms and loving their families. Even though they did not live lives of grandeur, the speaker asserts that their lives had meaning and were full of ambition. He wonders how their lives might have been different had they been born into privilege or better circumstances. Could the people buried here have been the next great poet or politician if given the chance?

He argues that even those who are blessed with power and money die the same deaths as the common folk. No amount of power in life or a fancy tomb in death will bring them back. Finally, he reflects on his own inevitable death and imagines the epitaph he wishes to have on his grave.

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” Analysis and Quotes

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” relies on an assortment of literary devices to depict the central themes of death and social status and create the contemplative tone of the poem. The literary devices used throughout the poem are personification, alliteration, allusion, and metaphor. Rhetorical question, euphemism, synecdoche, and onomatopoeia are also used more subtly but to great effect.

Personification

Personification is used to add layers of conflict to the poem. The primary antagonist in the poem is Death, who is personified as being indifferent to human pain or flattery with the “dull cold ear of Death” (44). Death is impersonal and uncaring, but other inanimate objects and abstract ideas are also personified throughout the poem. This draws attention to other forces that are used to separate humans into categories of status in life. Consider the personification of Ambition and Grandeur in lines 29–32:

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.

Ambition and Grandeur are personified as forces that generally mock ordinary people. But the speaker wants to change the narrative and implies that the poor shouldnt be derided just because they don’t have lives as flashy as those who are born into good social standings. Just because ordinary people are homely and simple, it doesn't mean their lives are any less valuable.

In fact, the speaker argues that other forces like Knowledge and Penury (or poverty) are responsible for the disadvantages that ordinary people face. Common people are naturally positioned behind extraordinary people through no fault of their own:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page

Rich with the spoils of time did neer unroll;

Chill Penury repressd their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul (49–52).

He argues that instead of being lazy and lacking ambition, ordinary people started life at a disadvantage. Knowledge was unkind to them and purposefully kept them ignorant, and Penury repressed their ability to climb the ranks of status or live a happy, pleasant life.

The abstract forces presented throughout the poem are personified to maintain the status division between the upper class and lower class people, showcasing the theme that status is used to maintain divisions between people.

To a lesser degree, personification is also used to introduce the setting and develop the theme of nature. This happens in the third stanza with:

The moping owl does to the moon complain

Of such, as wandring near her secret bow’r,

Molest her ancient solitary reign (10–12).

The owl is used to show that nature is ultimately an active force that reflects life and death in the same way that humankind does. Throughout the poem, the use of trees and birds depicts the cycle of life that all natural things go through. The owl here is also used to create the image of a graveyard at dusk, as owls are nocturnal, predatory birds often associated with death.

Personification: Attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.

The personification of the owl further depicts the setting and develops the theme of nature, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, StudySmarterThe personification of the owl further depicts the setting and develops the theme of nature, Pixabay

Alliteration and Imagery

The mood created with the repetition of certain sounds shifts throughout the poem as the imagery and focal point of the poem shift. Consider the repetition of both the “P” and “W” sounds in line 3: “The plowman homeward plods his weary way.” The repetition of the “P” and “W” sounds exactly like the plodding of the farmers, exhausted from a long day in the fields. Using two separate alliterative sounds in one sentence dramatically catches the reader’s eye and slows the pace. Instead of rushing through the lines, the reader’s pace matches the exhausted, weary farmers who do the same backbreaking labor day after day.

The weariness settles into a peaceful calm in the next stanza with the repetition of the “S” sound in “And all the air a solemn stillness” (6). The repetition of the “S” sound has a kind of shushing effect, changing from the weariness the farmers feel in life to the calmness of death in the cemetery.

Poetry is meant to be read aloud so that you can physically hear the nuances of poetic devices. Read this section out loud to see what kind of effect the repetition of the “S” sound has on your speech and how that contributes to the mood of the poem. Can you more easily picture the scene?

The alliteration shifts later on in the poem as the speaker distinguishes between the ordinary people who are buried in the country cemetery and the wealthy, noble people who are buried in flashy tombs. The repetition of the plosive “P” and “G” in “...the pomp of pow'r” (33) and “The paths of glory lead but to the grave” (36) are harsh sounds, critiquing the superficiality of the rich and powerful.

Alliteration, here, also connects words with very different connotations, setting up juxtaposition. For example, pomp is strongly negative while power is generally positive, and glory is strongly positive while grave is negative. The juxtaposition shows that in death, all things are equal, even the rich who have everything and the poor who have nothing.

Alliteration: The repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words

Imagery: The descriptive language that appeals to one of the five senses

Allusion

Allusion compares ordinary people to the extraordinary literary and political figures they could have been if only they were given the chance. The speaker compares the ordinary to Hampden, Milton, and Cromwell:

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 countrys blood (57–60).

Hampden is an allusion to John Hampden (1595–1643), an English politician who opposed arbitrary taxes, making him a national symbol against tyranny. He was a key supporter of Parliament at the start of the English Civil War and was known for standing up against King Charles I’s tyrannic taxes. Hampden rose to such heights socially and politically because his family was long-established and renowned.

“Some mute inglorious Milton” refers to poet and intellectual John Milton (1608–1674). Milton was a civil servant who backed Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War and was largely influential because of his position. The speaker says that the ordinary people could have been great like him, but they were rendered mute because of their lack of power and, thus, inglorious.

Finally, the speaker says that a national figure such as Oliver Cromwell could have been born in the countryside if not for the lack of opportunity. Cromwell (1599–1658) was an English general and statesman who fought against King Charles I in the English Civil War and won, assuming control over England and its territories and the title of Lord Protector. Like Milton and Hampden, Cromwell came from great wealth and inherited his status.

Allusion: A figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption that the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic

Rhetorical question

A rhetorical question is used to show that power and prestige make no difference to death:

Can storied urn or animated bust

Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?

Can Honours voice provoke the silent dust,

Or Flattry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Influential people can be buried as ornately as they want, but it wont bring them back. The speaker uses rhetorical questions to again position himself on the side of the common people who are not frivolous in life or death. He believes the simplicity of the common folk is an asset as they don’t waste money on superficial tributes to death that won't do them any good. The rhetorical questions are used to make the reader think about the developing theme of death as an indiscriminate force.

Rhetorical question: A question asked to create a dramatic effect or emphasize a point rather than to get an actual answer.

Euphemism

The speaker uses several euphemisms for death to make it seem less harsh, especially in terms of his own ultimate demise. In lines 13–16, the speaker says,

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.

Positioning those who have died as merely sleeping takes away some of the finality of death and makes it less of an insurmountable force. The speaker also calls the dead “silent dust” (43) and death “the inevitable hour” (35). As the speaker reflects on his own mortality, euphemisms, perhaps, make death seem less scary for him.

Euphemism: A mild word or phrase that works as a gentler substitute for something considered too harsh or vulgar.

he speaker uses euphemism to describe the dead as sleeping, Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard, StudySmarterThe speaker uses euphemism to describe the dead as merely sleeping, Pixabay

Synecdoche and Metaphor

Synecdoche and metaphor depict death as a universal experience regardless of status, but life is a personal experience that depends entirely on status. Synecdoche is used to generalize poor people, while metaphor implicitly compares them to powerful forces. Consider stanza 12:

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 (45–48).

“Heart” is used as a synecdoche to describe a person and the passion they feel. The person is neglected, forcing them to lack the celestial fire that would have provided them with a source of power and momentum. Likewise, “hands” is a synecdoche for a common person who is being compared to the great ruler of an empire or a brilliant musician on the lyre.

Synecdoche: A part of something that is made to resemble the whole of that thing or vice versa

Metaphor is also used without synecdoche to depict how the common man’s social status holds him back from achieving great things. The speaker compares commoners to gems hidden in caves and flowers blooming in the desert:

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 (53–56).

The metaphor shows that it is not a lack of potential or value that keeps commoners in their lower status but rather a lack of opportunity. They could be as pure and precious as a gem, but their social status (the dark unfathom’d caves) hides them from actively influencing society. Likewise, commoners are full of life, sweetness, and vitality, but they are kept in the “desert” where there is little care for their lives or their contributions.

Metaphor: The comparison of two unlike things not using like/as.

Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is used primarily to depict the active state of nature and the way it intersects with human life. “Twittering” and “shrill clarion” read exactly as they sound: high pitched, musical, and full of life.

The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn (19–20).

The sounds of swallows and roosters are some of the first sounds that one hears in the morning. They signify the activity and vibrancy of life. Nature goes through cycles of death and rebirth as clearly as night fades into day. Onomatopoeia gives nature an important seat at the speaker’s discussion of death.

Onomatopoeia: A word imitates the sound that it is referring to.

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” Themes

Here are the main themes of the poem. What others can you think of? Can you think of other poems with similar themes?

Universality of Death

The central idea in the poem is that death is a universal experience that all people eventually submit to, regardless of status. The speaker introduces this theme by showing how death doesn’t discriminate between the rich and poor, and earthly riches don’t bring the dead back to life:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of powr,

And all that beauty, all that wealth eer gave,

Awaits alike th inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

...

Can storied urn or animated bust

Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?

Can Honours voice provoke the silent dust,

Or Flattry soothe the dull cold ear of Death? (33–36, 41–44).

No amount of money, fame, or glory will protect someone from death. It is a universal experience that is indifferent to human influence or power. In the end, common and extraordinary people alike turn to dust regardless of their accomplishments.

Social Class and Human Value

While death is an equalizer, the quality of a persons life depends entirely on their social class. The speaker purposefully walks through a rural cemetery full of forgotten faces and unknown names. The only people who mourn and remember commoners are their loved ones, who are more burdened with life than their wealthy counterparts. This leads to the poor’s graves being even more neglected and forgotten than great people.

But, the speaker asserts, poor people live unfortunate lives through no fault of their own. He says,

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayd,

Or wakd to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page

Rich with the spoils of time did neer unroll;

Chill Penury repressd their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark unfathomd caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flowr is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air (45–56).

Those of a lower social class are seen as less valuable simply because they werent given the same advantages at birth as the wealthy. Instead of being educated and using their knowledge to improve their lives, the poor are forced into physical labor like farming to feed themselves and survive. Poverty represses any ability to better oneself as they are so focused on merely getting by.

Although any one of the poor could be full of potential, their harsh lives snuff out all opportunity and hope. Their potential will never be realized due to their social status and the value that comes along with it. The speaker views social class as a negative thing that confines people to their status at birth.

Nature as a Cyclical Reflection of Life

Throughout the poem, nature is intricately intertwined with life and death in the rural countryside. Think of the roosters that wake the farmers up at dawn and the owl that guards the cemetery from intruders like the speaker himself. The natural world is everywhere, counteracting the theme of death with vibrant life. When the speaker dies, he wants to be remembered as one who loved nature:

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 (101 104).

Instead of being remembered as a great poet, he wants people to remember how he respected nature and found solace in it. Why? Perhaps because nature reminds him that everything is cyclical and life never really ends. The beech tree he rests under will lose its leaves in the Winter, but it will grow back all the more vibrant in the Spring. The “brook that babbles by” reminds him that nature is an active force, sustaining life and existing of its own accord.

The natural cycles of life are the religion that the speaker subscribes to in his own understanding of death. He might be buried in an unassuming cemetery such as this one, and his name might be forgotten, and his poems lost to the centuries, but if he believes in the cycle of nature, he will live on in the trees and birds and brooks, even after death.

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard - Key takeaways

  • “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was written by English poet Thomas Gray and published in 1751.
  • The poem examines human mortality and was inspired by the death of his best friend Richard West, the death of his aunt, and Horace Walpoles near-death experience.
  • The poem is largely thought to be set at St. Giles Church in Stoke Poges, where Gray, his mother, and his aunt are buried.
  • “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” reflects on the death of common people who are buried without elaborate graves and who lived ordinary lives.
  • Themes in the poem include the universality of death, social class and human value, and nature as a cyclical reflection of life.

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' reflects on the death of common people. The speaker considers their lives and how they would have been different if they were born into more favorable circumstances. Then he reflects on the wealthy's elaborate graves, which do nothing to bring them back to life. He says death comes for everyone. 

It is an elegy in name more than in form. Instead of reflecting on the death of a singular influential person as most elegies do, Gray's 'Elegy' memorializes ordinary people. 

Gray was inspired by the death of his aunt, the death of his best friend, and the near-death experience of another friend. He was also inspired by St Giles' Parish Church in Stoke Poges, where he went to Sunday mass and visited his aunt's grave. 

Gray compares common people to gems hidden in caves and flowers blooming in the desert to show that their lives were limited by their situations, not by their potential. 

It was completed and published in 1751.

Final Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Quiz

Question

What is 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'?

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Answer

'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' is English poet Thomas Gray's most popular poem, and it is now considered one of the finest elegies in the English language. 

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Question

Who wrote 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'? 

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Answer

English poet Thomas Gray wrote the poem. He started it in 1742 following the death of his closest friend and finished it in 1750 after moving to Stoke Poges. 

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Question

What was the inspiration behind 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'? 

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Answer

Most scholars think Gray started writing 'Elegy' after his friend Richard West died in 1742. Gray was also inspired by his aunt's death and his close friend, Walpole,'s near death experience. The poem allowed him to reflect on the deaths of his loved ones and his own mortality. 

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Question

What is the setting of 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'? 

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Answer

It is a rural cemetery at sunset. Many scholars believe St. Giles Church at Stoke Poges is the actual setting, but that has been debated. It is where Gray, his mother, and his aunt are buried. 

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Question

What is 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' about? 

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Answer

'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' reflects on the death of common people. The speaker considers their lives and how they would have been different if they were born into more favorable circumstances. Then he reflects on the wealthy's elaborate graves, which do nothing to bring them back to life. He says death comes for everyone. 

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Question

What does the speaker in 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' say about famous and exceptional people? 

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Answer

He says that even paths of glory lead to the grave. No amount of money, fame, or status can save a person from death. And wasting money on elaborate tombs won't bring them back to life. 

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Question

What does the speaker say about poor people? 

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Answer

He says that their position in life is dependent entirely upon their circumstances and status at birth. He wonders if any of them could have been famous poets or politicians if they were given the chance. But lack of education and need for labor kept them in their lowly positions. 

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Question

How does the speaker want to be remembered after his own death? 

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Answer

He wants to be remembered as someone who loved and respected nature. Owing to nature's cyclical relationship with life, he finds peace in existing in harmony with the natural world. 

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Question

What allusions does the speaker make in 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'? 

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Answer

He says that the villagers could have been famous like Milton, Hampden, or Cromwell if they were given the opportunities. All three men came from well know families, and all played an important part in the English Civil War. Milton was also a famous poet. 

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Question

What are the themes in 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'? 

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Answer

The Universality of Death 

Social Class and Human Value

Nature as a Cyclical Reflection of Life

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