An elegy is a formal poem that usually delivers a lament for someone who has died, but there is also an element of praise or reflection that makes it positive, even while it’s sad. It’s different to a eulogy – a speech given about someone’s life, usually at their funeral, and also to a dirge, which is entirely mournful.
In this poem, Thomas Gray paints a picture of a mourner, alone in a church yard as evening falls. Left to his contemplation, he reflects on those buried nearby and what their lives may have been. Because this poem is about people who were unknown to him, and not specific to one particular person, Gray’s poem is actually more of an ode than an elegy, but given that he was the poet, he was free to call it whatever he wished.
The imagery of the evening scene before him is breathtaking. The reader can almost feel the weariness in the way the first stanza forces them to slow down and contemplate, alongside the poet, by the use of assonance on long vowel sounds in words like ‘curfew’, ‘lowing’, ‘plowman’, ‘home’, ‘leaves and ‘world’, and alliteration on the ‘m’ and ‘l’ sounds that do, indeed, evoke the plodding of the plowman. Gray continues using these devices throughout the poem, maintaining careful control of the pace and rhythm and ensuring that the reader’s reflections will not be rushed.
The poem leaves the reader with the understanding that death really is the great equaliser – it doesn’t matter whether one is nobly or humbly born, famous or not: eventually we’ll all end up the same way.
Like Donne’s ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’, this is another classic poem from which another author took a line as the title for a novel. Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy was published in 1874, 23 years after the poem was published by Gray in 1751.
Although it is likely Gray had written at least part of this poem before taking up residence there, the churchyard referred to in the title is that of St Giles Church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, England. In 1788, thirty-seven years after self-publishing this poem, Thomas Gray was himself buried in the very same churchyard.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
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.”
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.