Account of the Short and Simple Annals of the Poor in Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard – Thomas Gray was one of the most important poets of the eighteenth century. Gray’s best poetic output and the most popular elegy in English Literature, The Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard is a perfect fusion of the dignity of subject matter and the habitual elevation of his craftsmanship. This Elegy is unique in more ways than one. Primarily, the 18th century audiences were passing through a society which was full of city bred, fashionable and pompous beaus and belles. Gray’s “Elegy” is one of the best known poems about death in all of European literature. The poem presents the reflections of an observer, who passing by a churchyard out in the country, stops for a moment to think about the significance of the strangers buried there. Scholars of medieval times sometimes kept human skulls on their desktops, to keep themselves conscious of the fact that someday they, like the skulls’ former occupants, would die; from this practice we get the phrase memento mori, which we say to this day to describe any token one uses to keep one’s mortality in mind.
The Elegy starts in the hovering stillness of a dying day. The melancholy-stricken elegist muses over the life and living of the poor and tries to recover their wispy traces of history from the grave of time. Nature remains as the befitting background in the opening section of the poem. Within stanzas 1 to 3, the elegist sets the tone, atmosphere and the back ground of the elegy. All of the actions filtered through the poetic consciousness are either a ‘parting day’, a ‘weary’, ‘homeward’ ploughman or a world which seals up the days’ activities From stanzas 6 to 21, Gray describes the happy bygone days of the ‘rude forefathers’ of the village as well as of the common folk of the village. Stanza 22 and 23 are deep revelations of human psychology that the poor and rich alike, all men wish to be remembered and honoured by their kith and kin. Then there comes a poet shifting, the poet speaker addresses the story of a village poet in stanzas 24 to 29. Then comes the most controversial ‘Epitaph’ which describes the unfortunate tale of an obscure youth of humble birth, yet to his ‘fame’ and ‘fortune’. Thus, Gray has tried to register a moral of living as well as of dying.
Within its 32 stanzas, the Elegy depicts a collage of the prospects of the simple and common man of a village, the death of a village poet (arguable Richard West or Gray himself). Gray seriously thinks about poor or common people, so in stanza eight, he admonishes saying, let not ambitious people look down with contempt and ridicule upon their useful labours, their simple and homely joys, and humble lives of these villagers; let not people, who are great and majestic, hear with a contemptuous smile, the brief and simple life history of these poor people. According to him, all the pride and glory and power associated with beauty, pomp and wealth is transitory and awaits the final doom.
He advises the upper classes, those that are full of ambition, grandeur, power, nobility, and pride, exhorting them not to mock the poor for their simplicity, or for not having elaborated statues on their graveyard memorials. For the great men, after their burial, the loud and solemn sound of the song sung by the choir, in praise of the departed, raises high through long passage, and the arched ornamented ceiling of the church. The poor are born with the same natural abilities as members of the upper classes. The contrast between the rich and the poor, the great and the humble, is referred to in these stanzas. The difference between the rich and the poor is illusory, so far as death is concerned. Death is a great leveler:
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
Gray thinks of the poor villagers who are lying buried. His heart is full of sympathy for them. He laments for the rustic who died un-honoured, unwept and unsung. The sentiment expressed is universal. He writes of the poor villagers and mankind in general. These rustic people when alive led a very simple life. They were not ambitious. They did not commit the crime which ambitious people commit in order to become rich, but in the end everything is reduced to dust.
Again, it can be said that the poem elegizes the fate of the simple and common people in particular and the loss of the agrarian community life on the wake of urbanization, in general. Gray depicts a life which is rural and more settled. ‘Leadership’ of family was an accepted way of life. Gender-wise distribution of labour based on individual skill in meeting the both ends of life as well as for the betterment of their community was never questioned. It was a life when critics bothered least about gender-stereotyping that woman would look after busily the domestic duties and responsibilities (“As busy House Wife Ply her evening cares”) and men folk are the master of the outside world.
The most moving undercurrent of the Elegy is that Gray’s Elegy strongly pleads for the people who, mostly, after life’s fruitful toil embrace the grave silently and remain unsung. The poor villagers who are, forever, laid in their narrow cells are least remembered by the posterity. Gray appeals that the well off, in whose memories trophies are made on their tombs- equally come to the ‘bending sickle’ of Shakespeare to meet the inevitable hour. Gray says, –
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 poet presents a view about the overpowering of life by death, in stanza twelve, which makes any human achievement by the poor people impossible. The dead people buried in the churchyard had much potential for development. If chance had been given, they might have become great men, great politicians, and great poets. But these humble people never got the chance to open the vast book of knowledge which is full of the collective wisdom of the wise men of all ages. Cruel poverty chilled their enthusiasm and prevented their soul from finding expression in noble deeds and sentiments.
In spite of this, the poet compares the dead rustics of the village to the bright gems and pearls that lay hidden and unseen in the depths of ocean. They are akin to the beautiful flowers that bloom in the jungles, but fade away unseen and unrecognized and diffuse their sweet fragrance unnoticed and unenjoyed. Similarly, the humble villagers with great capacities died unknown in obscurity for want of suitable opportunity. The elements of comparison bring the divine love that Gray had for his village and for the people who lived there. Very few poetic compositions are able to touch the soul with a caliber of this range! Like in stanza thirteen
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.
The speaker observes that nothing can bring the dead back to life, and that all the advantages that the wealthy had in life are useless in the face of death. Neither elaborate funeral monuments nor impressive honors can restore life. Nor can flattery in some way be used to change the mind of death. Note here Gray’s use of personification in characterizing both “flattery” and “death”—as though death has a will or mind of its own. The speaker then reconsiders the poor people buried in the churchyard. He wonders what great deeds they might have accomplished had they been given the opportunity: one of these poor farmers, the speaker reasons, might have been a great emperor; another might have “waked … the living lyre,” or been a great poet or musician.
In the nineteenth stanza of the elegy, the poet describes the life led by the dead forefathers. ‘Storied Urn’ and ‘animated bust’ of the West Minister Abbey are sharply contrasted with ‘neglected spot’ and ‘lowly bed’ of the village graves. The ‘rude forefathers of the small hamlet’ are contrasted with the ‘ambition and pride’ of people of high ancestry (‘heraldry’). Gays says, –
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 poet proceeds to think about the simple and poor persons who are buried in this grave yard. He is pained to think that they do not live any more. Their wives kept the fire burning for them and worked hard. When they used to return from their work in the evening, their children would run up to them, lisping their names and eager to have their kisses. They used to harvest the corn, plough the furrow, drive their team of oxen to the field and cut wood with strong axes. All these activities have come to an end for them now. No such happy event would happen anymore.
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Gray expresses sympathy with the lot of the common people who lived far away from the madding crowd and spent their days in huts and cottages. He exhorts the proud and ambitious people not to laugh at the simple life and the obscure destiny of the poor. He tells them that they are much like the poor, since they also have to die one day and leave all their glory, wealth and luxuries in this world. The poem lays emphasis on the transitory state of all human glory and the emptiness of all boasts of power and wealth. It also points out the inevitability of death. Gray seems to impress upon us the idea that being poor is not altogether a matter of misfortune. The poor are fortunate in that they do not have to shut the gates of mercy on their fellow beings as the great men choose to do.
Thus, throughout the text, Gray has scattered a philosophy on the art of living as well as of dying. His metaphysical dispositions leads him to become a votary of the Latin adage, memento mori (‘remember that you have to die’) and the Biblical monition that ‘from dust we have come and to dust we would return.’ To establish the case for the poor,Gray used theological doctrines such as beauty and vanity of earthly life is a hindrance to spiritual salvation, where as honesty and poverty are good towards immortality of the soul:
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.
Gray’s “Elegy” isn’t just about death, and it isn’t just doom and gloom. It’s about the fear of being forgotten after you’re gone. Gray looks at the graves of common folks, and instead of just shrugging and figuring that their lives were not worth remembering, he takes the time to think about what made them tick. And apparently this poem hit a sympathetic chord within the eighteenth-century readers. This elegy presents a faithful account of the human condition on this earth, and if that condition turns out to be gloomy, Gray is not to be blamed for this. To him goes the credit for pointing out not only the obscurity of life of the poor, but also their good luck in having escaped, through death, the acts of cruelty and violence that they might have committed had they lived longer.
An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard moves from a meditation in a particular place upon the graves of the poor, to a reflection on the mortality of all humankind and on some of the benefits of being constrained by poverty. The poem alludes to the wish of all people not to die and to the ways in which each is remembered after death. Gray concludes by imagining his own death and how he hopes to be remembered. He finally concludes that he wants the same as the common, ordinary people he has written about.