Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray: Summary and Analysis

Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is composed in quatrains, where the first line rhymes with the third, and the second with the fourth. Elegiac poetry is mostly written in abab form. The last three stanzas of the poem have been written in italic type and given the title "The Epitaph".

Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

The first three stanzas (lines 1 to 12) provide the scene for private and quiet meditations. He is in search of a country churchyard at a rural scene. The scene is beautiful, but the life is not blissful, and Gray reveals that this day also passes away as usual, as the plowman plods wearily home. The speaker creates the melancholic scene by stating that the stillness and peaceful environment of the churchyard is disturbed by the tinkling of the cattle who have returned home, the drone of the beetle, and the sound of an owl from the church tower.

In the next four stanzas (lines 13 to 28), some important images and symbols are presented: the strength of the elms, the graves as death, and the comfort provided by the yews shading bodies that sleep. Here the speaker reveals the simple life of the lower class people who wakes up at the song of birds and enjoys hard work. For them the death means the end of the simple pleasures of the life.

In the next four stanzas (lines 29 to 44), the speaker tells the upper class people who are ambitious, have majesty, supremacy, aristocracy, and pride, not to mock at the poor people for their simplicity. He put his idea of death so easily and convincingly that ultimately it does not matter what splendor they attain or how decorative a gravestone they will have, they will die just like the poor.

The lines from 45 to 76 offers the fundamental message of the poem: all the people, even the poor are born with the equal natural capacities. If they are given suitable opportunity and encouragement, then they too can prove themselves as better as the upper class.

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

In lines 77 to 92, the speaker is touched by the shared humanity of the poor people. He shows the beauty in the misspelled inscriptions in the tombstone, some unpolished and consoling biblical verses and poorly decorated shapeless sculpture.

Lines 93-116 are transition to the next six stanzas where it seems that Gray is addressing himself when he writes:  For thee, who mindful of the unhonoured dead, Dost in these lines their artless tale relate, If chance, by lonely contemplation led, Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate.

In lines 98 to 116 Gray visualizes an old farmer, who is termed as a “hoary-headed swain,” The farmer’s story describes Gray as a man who does not fit both in the upper class and in the lower class. He is a wanderer who rests below the tree and watches the brook. He is like a depressed lover or a madman. He meets all the qualities that the contemporaries of the Gray’s thought a poet should have. The farmer says he had seen the funeral of the poet in the same churchyard where the poem is set, but he cannot read the epitaph which is at the end of the poem.

The last three stanzas is the epitaph (lines 117 to 128) of the poem. Here, the poet declares his grave is upon the lap of earth. He justifies his life as worthwhile as he was generous and sincere.  He concludes his epitaph by stating the reader not to ask anything more about the poet’s vice and virtues but leave it to God.

Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' is the culmination of the literature of melancholy as well as of the Churchyard school. With its pensive mood and love of twilight it is in the Penseroso vein; in its meditation on death and the grave, it belongs more properly to the school of Blair and Young. The Elegy is the best-known poem of Gray. Gray made it exceedingly fashionable, and swarms of imitations of his churchyard poem poured from the press. Its influence was felt immediately, not only in England, but all over Europe. The Elegy is one of the most quoted in English. The perfect fitting of the language to the generalities has caused some of the lines and phrases to have an almost proverbial familiarity.

The poet reflects in the village cemetery on the graves of the humble and poor in its generalizing treatment of traditional themes and in the representative images evoking the country scene. The verse is beautifully adapted to this generalizing manner which consequently does not attract the charge of insincerity sometimes made against 18th century poems of this kind.

The simple and slow-moving stanza form is here handled with great skill. The poem opens effectively by gradually emptying the landscape of both sights and sounds as dusk descends, and the elegiac, meditative tone is sustained throughout a variety of turns in the thought. It is in the tradition of graveyard contemplation, but here the handling of the setting and of the development of the meditation is done with high art. The poem moves with ease from a contemplation of the landscape to a consideration of 'the short and simple annals of the poor' to suggest moral ideas which arise from this consideration. The alternation between generalized abstractions and individual examples is adroitly done, and the whole poem gives a sense of personal emotion universalized by form. There was in fact a deeply personal feeling behind it, and it was not all written at one time, which accounts for the somewhat unexpected turn the poem takes as it moves to its conclusion. The poet turns to address himself in the twenty-fourth stanza and to move the poem round until it reveals his own epitaph, and this involves a certain break in the continuity which is never wholly justified by the development in the tone or the structure.

Related Topics

Biography of Thomas Gray