Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a famous elegy written by the English poet Thomas Grey. A large part of the charm of the Elegy comes from the poet's personal, sensitive approach to his subject. He lingers in the churchyard, acting signs of the approaching nightfall until the atmosphere of twilight-musing is established, after which his reflections upon life and death have a tone of sad and intimate sincerity. These reflections are mostly philosophical and often universal with the elegiac note rising and falling. The personal note is struck early in the poem:

“The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me. “
Left alone to meditate in the churchyard, the poet thinks of the humble dead as representative of all humanity and in that lies the universal appeal of the poem. Even the rural English churchyard ceases to be local and becomes universal.

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.

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

The elegiac note proper enters the poem sin the fourth stanza, when we are told that “each in his narrow cell for ever laid, the rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep”. The elegiac note rises when the poet reflects that the housewife will no more attend to her domestic work, and that children will no more run to greet their fathers on their return home. Then follows a picture of the occupations which these men used to follow during their lives. Thus, after referring to the irrevocable nature of death Gray gives us a retrospective picture of the simple domestic pleasures and rustic occupations of these men.

The four stanzas that follow are written in a tone of moralizing. The elegiac note here subsides. Certain statements of universal application are now made, and there is some popular philosophy behind them. Let not the proud and ambitious people mock at the humble lives and simple joys of these men. All men are subject to death. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”, If no monuments were raised over these dead men, it does not matter. Neither the "storied urn" nor the "animated bust" can bring the departed soul back to its body.

The elegiac note rises again in the next four stanzas. The poet laments the fact that the latent abilities and gifts of these men found no scope for outlet or expression. There might have been among these dead persons someone whose heart was full of religious fervour which remained suppressed. There might have been someone who was fit to rule an empire, or someone who could have become a great musician if opportunity had favoured him. Extreme poverty made it impossible for them to acquire knowledge or to display their religious zeal or to cultivate the generous impulses of their souls.

In a stanza which has become famous because of its universal appeal we are told that many exquisite gems lie unknown in the depths of the sea, and many flowers bloom and fade away unknown in a desert. The poet then becomes more specific. There might have been among these men someone who had the courage and daring of John Hampden, someone with the poetic gift of Milton, or someone with the war-like nature of Cromwell. But owing to a want of opportunity and on account of the crushing effect of poverty, their capabilities remained suppressed and unknown. The elegiac note has here been considerably heightened because of the plaintive tone of these stanzas and the profound regret that the poet is experiencing. There is nothing in these lines which could be called "philosophical", but they have a universal validity. Nobody will question the general- truth here (even though someone might point out that nobody with the poetic gift of Milton can remain mute all his life). These stanzas are, furthermore, perfectly impersonal, even though some critics have discovered personal feeling here. The state of not being able to attain fame may be a reference to Gray himself.

The elegiac note subsides once again when the poet proceeds to dwell upon the consoling aspects of the situation. The very poverty and obscurity of these men were a blessing, says the poet. True that they found no chance to display their oratorical powers or their capacities for the uplift of their nation. But, if their humble destiny did not permit them to develop and display their virtues and abilities, it likewise kept in check their potentialities for mischief. Their humble destiny prevented them from plunging the world into war, or from becoming unscrupulous villains, or from humiliating themselves by their cringing flattery of men of position and rank. They lived peaceful, tranquil and retired lives, and they did not take to any evil courses.

There is no profound philosophy in these observations, but they certainly have a universal appeal. We can all appreciate the argument as applied to those men who were potential foes of humanity but who found no scope for their villainy. But there may be something personal here too. Perhaps Gray is more concerned here with the frustrated poet than with the frustrated ruler. The consolation offered for waste and frustration in the human situation is a consolation to Gray's own sense of waste and frustration, which no longer appears as a personal inadequacy, but as a part of what must inevitably happen in all human life and all nature.

The poet next speaks about the humble tombstones on which the names and ages of the dead are engraved. These engravings and inscriptions, though awkwardly executed, serve to commemorate the dead men and fulfill an essential need. Here the poem has definitely become philosophical and states a deep psychological truth. Everybody, while dying, casts a regretful eye on this world, says the poet. A dying man feels a keen desire to be remembered lovingly after his exit from here. The tears of sympathy and affection which he sees in the eyes of a dear friend are a source of great comfort to him.

“On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires.”
Even after death, when all is dust and ashes, this desire for loving remembrance is keenly felt. The inscriptions on the tombstones in this churchyard are thus a fulfillment of that natural desire. As the poet here ventures to gauge the feelings of human beings after their deaths, he becomes almost metaphysical in his approach. How far one can agree here is a matter of opinion. But there is nothing personal about what the poet has said.

After having thus related the "artless tale of the unhonoured dead", the poet turns to himself. The Elegy now becomes deeply personal, and the elegiac note too deepens. The poet tells us of the daily routine that he followed at Stoke-Poges where he was living when this poem was meditated and sketched. We learn that he used to greet the sunrise from the top of a hill, that at noontide he used to stretch himself beneath a tree in a contemplative mood, and that he used to roam about in various moods. But this routine, he says, would one day end and he would then be buried in the same churchyard. The poem is here neither philosophical nor universal; it only expresses self-pity.

The poem concludes with the poet's epitaph written by himself. He refers to himself as a melancholy and scholarly person, with a generous, sympathetic, sincere heart, and with full confidence in Almighty God in whose bosom he will rest after death. These lines are personal, with a philosophical touch.

The final eight stanzas of the poem may even have a wider personal reference than has been indicated above. The listless youth, muttering his wayward fancies in solitude* (Line 106), may in the first place, be Gray's close friend, Richard West (who like Milton's Lycidas, cherished poetic ambitions that were frustrated by an early death). Secondly, of course, he is Gray himself, also ambitious, hypochondriacal, and unhappy, and likely enough to come to a similar end. The epitaph (the last three stanza) sums up the whole, and provides another argument for the attitude of resignation which Gray wishes to establish: “The bosom of his Father and his God”. In this connection, the following comment by a critic seems relevant: "In its combination of personal detachment and involvement, the Elegy is in some sense an 18th-century Lycidas"

*”Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,…”


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