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‘Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard’ is, as the title suggests, an elegy written by Thomas Gray. It is a lamentation of the unknown and the unrecognised, those who are simply brushed off for being too simple and one among the many. Only an excerpt of the poem has been prescribed in this syllabus.
About the Poet:
Thomas Gray (1716-1771) was an English poet born in London. He began as a Classicist before transitioning into a Romantic. Out of the 13 poems that he had written, ‘Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard’, published in 1751, is the most famous and well recognised.
The recurring theme in this poem is death. Death is a concept addressed in every stanza of the poem, how irreversible it is by nature. Mourning as a theme can also be observed throughout the poem where the persona aggrieves for the death of those who had not been fortunate enough to attain fame.
This long lyric poem is written in the form of an elegy, lamenting over death of the unrecognised. It includes all features of an elegy, including a pastoral set up. It is made of thirty-three stanzas of quatrains each. Each line follows the iambic pentameter. Rhyme scheme followed by the poem is abab cdcd and so on and so forth.
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.
The poem begins with a description of how the day draws to an end in that town whose name has not been mentioned. Every description here, from the cows moving slowly away to the farmer dragging himself home portrays a picture of exhaustion and the signification of the end of the day. A parallel thus is drawn between the end of the day and that of a person’s life, setting a sombre mood to the poem. The stanza ends with a sense of loneliness, how the persona is left all alone with only darkness as his company as the day ends.
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.
This stanza describes the burial ground, how the people of the town are buried beneath the elm and yew trees. There is a tone of finality here when the persona talked about how those people who are laid to rest are to sleep eternally, to be buried there in dirt forever.
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.
This stanza is an extension of the previous one where the finality of death is even more pronounced. The next morning is vividly described, how pleasant smelling and breezy it is. The poem thus goes on to state that such a morning, with the shrill call of the rooster or the blaring of the hunter’s horn will never be able to wake the dead, emphasising on the irreversibility of death.
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.
This stanza has a note of caution in it. The persona warns people how to not let their ambition mock the hard work, simplistic joys and a life led without fame of the townspeople who are now dead. The persona also asserts how not to let the feeling of superiority over the poor dismiss them with a scornful smile.
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.
An explanation of the previous stanza follows here. The persona urges the privileged, those who life luxurious, pompous lives filled with beauty to not mock the underprivileged for they too await imminent death. All their glory in life can after all lead to nothing but the grave, very much like those who lead unremarkable lives.
This poem normalises the idea of death. For all the luxuries of the world people crave, they must never forget that they won’t be able to carry their riches and fame to the grave. Thus, one must not feel entitled but must be humble in life as every single person on Earth will one day have to inevitably cease to exist and die.