bliss, tis folly to be wise’- Thomas Gray
(1716-1771) wrote in a literary age dominated by Alexander Pope and Dr Johnson,
who considered poetry to be a matter of intellect and its purpose didactic. It
practically ignored the beauties of nature and the free play of emotions which
were celebrated by the Romantics in the poetry. Gray was a forerunner of the
Romantic Movement initiated by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Elegy Written in a Country
Churchyard, one of the popular poems in English language by Gray, completed
in 1750 and first published in 1751.
can be best understood in relation to two poetic traditions that were prevalent
first half of the eighteenth century. The first of
these is elegiac tradition. An elegy is a sustained
and formal poem setting forth the poet’s meditation on
death or another solemn theme. The
second tradition is the landscape tradition in which
the poet embodies his metaphysical and
philosophical musings in the countryside or in nature.
A subdivision of landscape poetry is the
graveyard school of poetry. The graveyard school tries
to achieve an atmosphere of pleasing
melancholy by contemplating death and immortality,
usually in a graveyard at night. The
Graveyard poets were fond of dwelling on owls,
hearses, palls and other images of death.
While Gray’s poem belongs to this category, he has
muted some sensational elements.
seems to be a typical elegy but not very much so because most elegies embodies
the death of a particular person or persons. An elegy
is by nature somber in tone however, unlike
a typical elegy this work does not focus on the death
of one single person neither does Gray talk
about the death of someone rich or famous or someone
close to him. An elegy is typically lyrical
rather than narrative that is, its primary purpose is
to express feelings and insights about its
subject rather than to tell a story. An elegy
expresses feelings of loss and sorrow while also
praising the dead and commenting on the meaning of the
dead person’s life on earth. Gray’s lines
reflect on the
lives of ordinary humble people buried in the graveyard of a church.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a 128 lined
meditative poem occasioned by the sight of the tombs of poor villagers in a
country churchyard. In the brooding silence of the twilight, Gray muses on the
uneventful life led by the simple village folk. He compares their humble lot
with the great accomplishments of people whose names are recorded in history.
It is not that these villagers lacked talents but opportunities were sadly
denied to them. However, death is that great leveler, which destroys all
distinctions between the rich and the poor. Vanity of pride and riches, or the
halo of greatness offers no protection against death. Musing on death and its
solemnity, the poet is reminded of his own fate. The poem ends on a personal note,
with the supposed death of the poet, his burial in the churchyard, and the
epitaph on his grave. The churchyard mentioned in the poem believed to be the
one at Stoke Poges, a village in London, where Gray himself was buried.
stanza appropriately sets the atmosphere of the poem.
tolls the knell of parting day,
herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
ploughman homeward plods his weary way
the world to darkness and to me.
tolls to announce that the day is ended; all the activities of the day have
come to a close, leaving the poet in the fast approaching darkness. The
solemnity of the twilight is graphically presented by the description of the
sights and sounds of the hour. The poet admonishes the great not to view the
poor with contempt, suggest that poor too might have been accomplished and
powerful, assert that all men are equal in death.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear
muses about the fate of many of the rustics whose latent talents remained
unknown, like the pure gems which lie buried in the depths of the ocean or
beautiful flowers which bloom in the wilderness of the desert.
churchyard, Gray feels, lie buried rustics who would have become great poets,
leaders or rulers like John Milton, John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell
respectively. The poem tries to elevate and defend the lives of the poor
against the contempt of the mighty. Don’t “mock their useful toil”, the poet
exhorts. The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, and all that beauty, all
that wealth e’er gave, awaits alike the inevitable hour. “The paths of glory
lead but to the grave”.
achieves the dignified, grave tone of poem through a number of poetic devices.
Heroic quatrain also called as ‘elegiac stanza’, is a four-line stanza written
in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of -abab-. It combines monosyllabic
words and long vowels and produces exactly the effect of quiet melancholy which
is characteristic of both elegy and graveyard poetry. For instance, “The lowing
herd wind slowly over the lea”. Personification of “Chill Penury” denotes the
extreme poverty suffered by the poor rustics. Onomatopoeia, alliteration,
transferred epithet and oxymoron are other poetic devices used.
Johnson in his Lives of the English Poets
notes that ‘elegy’ abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind
and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. In fact, Samuel
Johnson declared Gray as the man who wrote the English poem loved by “the
common reader”. Tennyson applauds the poem for its “divine truisms that make us
weep”. Gray had contributed many famous phrases to English literature like the
short and simple annals of the poor, the paths of glory lead but to the grave,
far from the madding crowd. etc.