Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

by Thomas Gray

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.

The Epitaph 

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. 

Summary of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

  • Popularity of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: Thomas Gray, a renowned English poet, scholar, and professor wrote ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. It was first published in 1751. Though it appears as a narrative poem, it is a lyrical poem. It is known for its theme of death and mortality. The poem laments the deaths of all men, especially, the poor and unrecognized ones. It also speaks about class differences.
  • “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” As a Representative of Sorrow: This poem is about the writer’s meditations on the mysterious countryman sleeping in the churchyard. The poet describes both auditory and visual sensations he observes and feels in that churchyard. The mournful sounds of the owls remind him of the dead resting in their graves. He laments they will be unable to enjoy the fruits of life: the happiness of home, wife, and work. He also comments on the fame and honors rich people enjoy in their lives. To him, the poor souls would have also accomplished great tasks only if they had the opportunity. Now, they are peacefully sleeping in their cells, and their plain graves reflect their simplicity and morality. In contrast, he describes the lavish funeral momentums of the rich that are prominent in the same churchyard. But nothing can restore life. Even in his epitaph, he asks us not to remember him as a wealthy, educated and great person. He wants to be remembered as a melancholic, serious and sad person. He desires to be known as a common man whom he has praised and with whom he was going to be buried.
  • Major Themes in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: Death, the transience of life and memento mori are the major themes of this poem. Surrounded by death, the poem provides various images pointing out the contrast between life and death, the mortality and the difference between different classes after death. Throughout the poem, he develops the idea that every glitter becomes rusted on the face of death. He intends to present that the members of the lower class are worthy of praise as compared to the upper class even in the post-death period. Their simple, unreadable graves give a clue to their miserable lives. The poet refrains from glorifying the virtues of the wealthy and famous because they enjoyed fame while they were alive. He prefers acknowledging the morality and decency of those who led woeful yet satisfied life.

Analysis of Literary Devices in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Literary devices are tools used by writers and poets to convey their emotions, feelings, and ideas to the readers. Thomas Gray has also used many literary devices to make the poem appealing. Here is the analysis of some literary devices used in this poem.

  1. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line such as the sound of /o/ in “There at the foot of yonder nodding beech” and the sound of /i/ in “Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d”.
  2. Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line such as the sound of /r/ in “Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay” and the sound of /l/ in “And all the air a solemn stillness holds”.
  3. Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line in quick succession such as the sound of /h/ in “Haply some hoary-headed swain may say” and the sound of /w/ in “The plowman homeward plods his weary way”, and the sound of /l/ in “Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre”.
  4. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example, “There at the foot of yonder nodding beech”, “The next with dirges due in sad array” and “Each in his narrow cell forever laid.”
  5. Personification: Personification is to give human qualities to inanimate objects. For example, “Let not Ambition mock their useful toil”, “Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death” and “But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page.”
  6. Enjambment: It is defined as a thought in verse that does not come to an end at a line break; instead, it rolls over to the next line. For example,

The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne.”

Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this rhyme.

  1. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of verses and lines. There are thirty-two stanzas in this poem, each comprises of four lines.
  2. Quatrain: A quatrain is a four lined stanza. Here, each stanza is quatrain.
  3. Rhyme Scheme: The poem follows the ABAB rhyme scheme and this pattern continuous till the end.
  4. End Rhyme: End rhyme is used to make the stanza melodious. For example, “array/lay”, “dawn/lawn” and “hide/pride.”

Quotes to be Used

The lines stated below are suitable in a speech as a quote while talking about the transience of life and humility.

“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.”