We all find ourselves in graveyards thinking about those who are buried there. Thomas Gray (1745-1750) one of the “Graveyard Poets” or the “Boneyard Boys,” began a new trend in poetry of finding comfort, not in the graves of heroes or individuals, but in the thought of the ordinary and unknown people in a graveyard. Although rather long, his poem bears close reading.


 “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

1 The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
2 The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
3 The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
4 And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

5 Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
6 And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
7 Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
8 And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

9 Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
10 The moping owl does to the moon complain
11 Of such, as wandering near her secret bower,
12 Molest her ancient solitary reign.

13 Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
14 Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
15 Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
16 The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

17 The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
18 The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
19 The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
20 No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

21 For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
22 Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
23 No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
24 Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

25 Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
26 Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
27 How jocund did they drive their team afield!
28 How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

29 Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
30 Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
31 Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
32 The short and simple annals of the poor.

33 The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
34 And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
35 Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
36 The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

37 Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
38 If Memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
39 Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
40 The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

41 Can storied urn or animated bust
42 Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
43 Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
44 Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

45 Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
46 Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
47 Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
48 Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

49 But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
50 Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
51 Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,
52 And froze the genial current of the soul.

53 Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
54 The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
55 Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
56 And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

57 Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
58 The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
59 Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
60 Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

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

65 Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone
66 Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
67 Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
68 And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

69 The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
70 To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
71 Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
72 With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

73 Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
74 Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
75 Along the cool sequestered vale of life
76 They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

77 Yet even these bones from insult to protect
78 Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
79 With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked,
80 Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

81 Their name, their years, spelt by the unlettered muse,
82 The place of fame and elegy supply:
83 And many a holy text around she strews,
84 That teach the rustic moralist to die.

85 For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
86 This pleasing anxious being e’er resigned,
87 Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
88 Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?

89 On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
90 Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
91 Ev’n from the tomb the voice of nature cries,
92 Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.

93 For thee, who mindful of the unhonoured dead
94 Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
95 If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,
96 Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

97 Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
98 “Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
99 Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
100 To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.

101 “There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
102 That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
103 His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
104 And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

105 “Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
106 Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove,
107 Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
108 Or crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless love.

109 “One morn I missed him on the customed hill,
110 Along the heath and near his favourite tree;
111 Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
112 Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

113 “The next with dirges due in sad array
114 Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne.
115 Approach and read (for thou can’st read) the lay,
116 Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

The Epitaph

117 Here rests his head upon the lap of earth
118 A youth to fortune and to fame unknown.
119 Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
120 And Melancholy marked him for her own.

121 Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
122 Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
123 He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
124 He gained from Heaven (’twas all he wished) a friend.

125 No farther seek his merits to disclose,
126 Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
127 (There they alike in trembling hope repose)
128 The bosom of his Father and his God.

 Abigail: A review of the poem in 1785 complained that it is a confused heap of splendid ideas thrown together without order or proportion. There do seem to be some remnants of an older age of poetry: the abstract nouns like “Ambition, Honour, Grandeur”; rhetorical questions, “Can storied urn?”; an apostrophe “ye Proud”; stilted diction (from Milton) “incense-breathing Morn”; personification, “Chill Penury” “Fair Science.”  Yet the poem also presents a new way of seeing external nature.

There are several themes that have not been used in poetry before: poverty, anonymity, alienation, and unfulfilled potential. These are themes we can all relate to that will become popular with the Romantic poets, especially William Wordsworth. By the way, popularity may be noted in the famous lines of the poem which have been used in other art forms: “Paths of glory,” “Far from the madding crowd.”

The first stanza mentions the ringing the curfew bell—this is the same bell John Donne wrote of in his famous, “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls” (No Man Is an Island).  This bell announces someone is dying so that everyone else can pray for his soul to go to Heaven. But what a beautiful start, night coming, the landscape in twilight, and the cemetery in as much obscurity as those under the ground. Lines 15 and 16 introduce the subject of the poem, the unknown people “sleeping” in the grave. These lives are over and this type of rustic life is over as well. How can we relate to these rude country bumpkins?

In line 36, death becomes the great equalizer of the known and the unknown, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Perhaps Gray thinks, someone is buried here who might have been great except that he did not have the possibility of an education, “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest” (l. 59). There is the unfulfilled potential of the dead rather than a fullness of life that doesn’t leave a trace. Yet if someone is “mute,” how can they be a Milton?

I love Gray’s descriptions of the tombs, the attempt to place immortality on the unknown dead. The whole is written with a beautiful, melancholic tone. We see a human desire to leave a trace behind and the corresponding impossibility of doing so.

The Epitaph seems like a microcosm of the whole, another elegy. But who is it an epitaph for and who wrote it?

AnnaLee: I must confess that at first reading I disliked Gray’s poem. I had to force myself through the many images—moping and complaining owl, drowsy tinklings, mute Milton—that seem to pile up and plod on in a series as inevitable as death itself. That said, when I read your words, Abigail, and felt your enthusiasm for the Elegy, I gave it a second chance. And to my delight, there is a lot to appreciate.

I was particularly intrigued by the poem’s celebration of everyman rather than evoking the heroic, an idea that was making its way into the arts and politics. This idea remains strong today, although in recent times heroic themes have made a lot of money at the box office and have kept the book industry alive.

In the last line of the first stanza (line 4) the poet ends with,“And leaves the world to darkness and to me.” My thoughts about the meaning of this line took me in several directions. One idea is that Gray is setting the time for the poet to contemplate the scene and write, which would be after the daily tasks are done and the darkness sets in. But when you refer to the epitaph at the end of the poem (lines 117 – 128), and ask who it’s for and who wrote it, I believe that Gray may have written it as his own imagined epitaph. Perhaps this is the way he saw his life, which would bring the poem around to the “me” that is left in the darkness at the beginning.

What do you think?