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Elegy Written In A Country Chrchyard Essay, Research Paper


Thomas Gray?s Elegy laments the death of life in general while mourning long gone ancestors and

exhibiting the transition made by the speaker, from grief and mourning to acceptance and hope. It was

written in 1742 and revised to its published form in 1746, and is one of the three highlights of the

elegiac form in English literature, the others being Milton?s ?Lycidas? and Tennyson?s In Memoriam. It

was first published, anonymously, in 1751, under the title “An Elegy wrote in a Country

Churchyard.” Although believed to be started in 1742 the exact date of composition of the Elegy, apart

from the concluding stanzas, cannot be exactly determined. The Elegy was concluded at Stoke Poges in

June, 1750, where Gray was buried. The churchyard as described by Gray is typical rather than

particular; of the five disputed “originals” Stoke Poges bears the least resemblance to the graveyard in the


The poem starts off dark and dreary often rousing images of death. The first four stanzas establish

the time and setting of the poem. There was a curfew around the time that this was written and the first

line supports this. It was wrung at eight o?clock as a signal for extinguishing fires and marked the end

of the day. The first stanza also includes a ?plowman?(line 3) who, after a hard day , is on his way

home. There is a ?solemn stillness?(line6) which also suggests twilight or some time in the evening. Line

15 places the speaker in the poem in a graveyard. ?Each in his narrow cell forever laid?(line 15)

describes people resting eternally in their narrow cells, which are usually associated with coffins or the

narrow graves that they were placed into.

The speaker of the poem then goes on to talk about the lost pleasures of the dead. Line 21 starts

describing these pleasures by using a hearth or a fireplace which symbolises the light of life. The

?forefathers? mentioned in the fourth stanza will no longer feel the warmth of the fire(line 21) or the

love of a woman(line 22). They will not experience being welcomed by their kids when they come home

from work or the fields(line23) and having them ?climb their knees? for a kiss. All these things are

worldly pleasures that the dead will no longer experience.

Stanzas seven through nine deal with death as a part of life. For instance, in line 29 and 30 the

speaker states that they shouldn?t let their ambitions confuse their destiny, meaning the dead. Every one

of us awaits the ?inevitable hour?(line35) and all our work, wealth, possessions and beauty that our life

bestows on us all lead to the same ?paths?. ?The paths of glory?(line 36) which ?lead but to the grave?.

This also evokes the feeling of hopelessness (brought about by the death of his friend) which Gray must have

been going through at the time he wrote this. The basic concept of these few stanzas is that no matter what

one does in his or her life and how valuable he or she believes it is one can not escape death; death is


The next section of the elegy (stanzas 10 -15) goes into the description of the unhonored dead or

people who received no recognition for their life?s work. We first see this in line 45 where the speaker

poses a question. ?Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid / Some heart…fire? are the two lines that

present the question who lies in this grave? and are they important? The speaker then says that there are

many great people born who are never recognised. Like a flower in a desert they ?blush unseen? and

?waste their sweetness on the desert air?(lines 55-56) They could have been a ?village Hampden?(line57)

in reference to John Hampden who defied King Charles I by resisting his revival of a tax on shipping

without the consent of the Parliament. The speaker also includes Milton and Cromwell. These people

could have been famous but ?They kept the noiseless tenor of their way?(line 76) and chose a different

way of life. They were never important but they will always be a ?part of history in a nations

eyes?(line 64). They will live on in the memories of their friends and relatives.

The people who are being described by the speaker could have been ?pregnant with celestial

fire?(line46), in other words they might have been special, but they never were. However they will live on

forever as ordinary people in our memories: ?…in our ashes live their wonted fires?(line 92). This is

exemplified in stanza 24 when the speaker makes a reference to Gray himself. The speaker states that

Gray is mindful of the ?unhonored dead?(line 93) and by relating their ?artless tale?(line 94) forever

burns their memory into our minds.

The Elegy takes a sudden turn in stanza 24. Gray now incorporates himself as an individual who

might also be remembered. ?Haply some hoary-headed swain may say?(line 97) or perhaps some

grey-haired man may one day remember Gray as he walked with ?hasty steps?(line 99) at ?the peep of

dawn?(line 98) to see the sunrise on the ?upland lawn? or plateau. This account continues up to and

including stanza 29 where Gray walks into a graveyard and reads his own gravestone which is included

as the last three stanzas of the Elegy as the Epitaph. It is not, however, his gravestone but that of his

friend. He sees his friend in himself just as we presently see our forefathers in ourselves and so he places

his own name on the gravestone.

By the end of the Elegy the speaker learns to accept his loss. The realisation that life goes on and

that the memory of his friend will live on, just as his will live on, helps to cope with the loss. Gray

started the Elegy by presenting the reader with a dilemma. In this case that dilemma was How do I cope

with my loss? By the end of the Elegy that dilemma was answered. The answer was that his friend will

live on in his heart and later in his remains as supported by line 92: ?…in our Ashes live their…fires?.


Starr, Herbert W., ed. Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Columbus, Ohio:

Charles E. Merril Pub. Co., 1968


Young, Robyn L., ed. Poetry Criticism, vol. 2. Detroit, 1991


Magill, Frank N., ed. Critical Survey of Poetry, English Language Series. California, 1992

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