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Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard -- Thomas Gray

I recently had occasion to quote from today's poem, and was rather surprised
to find that we hadn't run it yet (I know we've received several suggestions
that we do so). So, making up for the omission...
(Poem #1091) Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
 The curfew tolls the knell of parting day;
 The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea;
 The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
 And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

 Now fades the glimmering 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 tower,
 The moping owl does to the moon complain
 Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
 Molest her ancient solitary reign.

 Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade
 Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering 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 twittering 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 bowed 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 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.

 Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
 If memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
 Where through 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 flattery 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 waked 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 repressed their noble rage,
 And froze the genial current of the soul.

 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.

 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 listening senates to command,
 The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
 To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
 And read their history in a nation's eyes,

 Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone
 Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
 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 learned to stray;
 Along the cool sequestered 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 decked,
 Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

 Their name, their years, spelt by the unlettered 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 resigned,
 Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
 Nor cast one longing lingering 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 the unhonoured 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,
 Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove;
 Now drooping, woeful-wan, like one forlorn,
 Or crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless love.

 "One morn I missed him on the accustomed hill,
 Along the heath, and near his favourite 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 through the church-way path we saw him borne,
 Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay
 Graved 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 frowned not on his humble birth,
 And melancholy marked him for her own.

 Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere;
 Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
 He gave to misery (all he had) a tear,
 He gained from Heaven ('twas all he wished) a friend.

 No further 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.
-- Thomas Gray
Notes:
  glebe: [Archaic] The soil or earth; land
  Hampden: John Hampden (ca. 1595-1643), one of the noblest of English
  Parliamentary statesmen; a central figure of the English revolution in
  its earlier stages.
    -- http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/poems/gray4.html

Today's poem is Gray's most famous, and rightly so - the subject matter may
be weighty, but Gray does it full justice. A good part of the poem's
popularity, I feel, stems from its accessibility. Despite the large number
of sub-themes, the overall structure remains simple, with ideas following
each other in a logical progression, but each distinct theme developed fully
and rounded off before giving way to the next, rendering the whole smoothly
and effortlessly readable.

Gray starts off by building up the gloomy, desolate atmosphere of a country
evening, when all the world has wound its weary way homeward, then, having
painted in the background, turns his attention to the foreground, and the
row of narrow graves in which "the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep". He
then reflects a while on the pastoral life, before introducing the poem's
main theme - the inevitable tragedy of lives wasted, of potential crushed by
Chill Penury, and then winding down with a reflection on a particular grave
and its epitaph.

And while the main thrust of the poem is definitely in the section from
"Perhaps in this neglected spot..." to "they kept the noiseless tenor of
their way", and while those are the lines that tend to be most often quoted,
the rest of the poem is by no means superfluous. Nor has Gray cobbled
together a number of disparate reflections into a single poem - while the
elegy's structure clearly divides it into sections, those sections fit
together naturally and organically, each reflection growing out of the
previous one in a totally unforced manner.

Another thing that marks today's poem as 'great' is the phrases it has
contributed to the language - the "mute, inglorious Milton", the "gem of
purest ray serene", and, thanks to Hardy, "far from the madding crowd". If,
as one commentator suggests, this poem marks Gray's own bid for immortality,
it does an admirable job of it.

martin

Links:

  An extensive set of notes on the poem can be found at
    http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/poems/gray4.html

  A biography of Gray:
    http://www.thomasgray.org/materials/bio.shtml

  [broken link] http://www.engl.virginia.edu/~enec981/dictionary/21grayD1.html has a
  discussion on the nature of the elegy

  [broken link] http://www.nortexinfo.net/McDaniel/1-16neocl.htm has an extended essay on
  the poem

  Bits of the poem remind me of Shirley's "Death the Leveller", Poem #942

  And we've already run a parody of Gray's Elegy: Poem #400

p.s. Please ignore an almost-blank mail you may have received a minute
ago; our script seems to have hiccupped.

18 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Krishnamurthi said...

Thanks for running Gray's Elegy. I studied it when I was seventeen ( I am now 63) and savoured it. Such pleasant memories as the lines suddenly reproduced themselves in my brain! For those interested in small tidbits, I was told that Gray had rewritten the poen seventy times to reach perfection and that these seventy copies had been preserved for posterity.
I don't think you have run Sylvia plath's My Sweet Old Electra . "Daddy" was a poem that made me sit up.
thanks again
Mrs.S.Krishnamurthy

asadzaman said...

Sir.

I read Gray's "Elegy" many years ago as a 10 grade student at a Jesuit school
in Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

The poem had left an indelible impression and touched my soul. Reading the
poem again after many years brings back many memories and makes me wonder as
man's fate is inevitable, why there is so much strife in today's world as
whatever we do in this world and whatever stations of life we created for ourselves
: we will all end in the same way and in the same place. This lesson man
should not forget for a moment.

Thanks for letting me express my feelings.
Sincerely,
asad

Ron Bennett said...

Still as evocative as it was when I first heard it over 50 years ago.

Joanne Santos said...

Gray's Elegy has evoked different feelings in me as my life has changed over the years. As a high school freshman studying with nuns at 13 what struck me was "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air". Now at 43 "No further seek his merits to disclose" rings in my ear. Our ever flowing life gives meaning to the words.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful poem.

Anonymous said...

I STILL CAN'T UNDERSTAND!!!

sildenafil said...

Tomas Gray will be remembered for this poem for the rest of eternity, you never disappoint me with the poem of the day!

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I've been redacting a poem since 6 months ago, I hope you like it:

After a long and wretched flight
That stretched from daylight into night,
Where babies wept and tempers shattered
And the plane lurched and whiskey splattered
Over my plastic food, I came
To claim my bags from Baggage Claim

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Thanks for share.
Seems like the character on the poem wants to reach something or someone but it can by itself and ask for help and someone made it, like a drama movie plot.

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