Critical Appreciation of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

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Critical Appreciation of Poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

Critical Appreciation of the Poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” – Elegy which owes its origin to Greek ‘elegos’ is a song of lamentation occasioned by the death of a person whom the poet loved or admired. The subjects in Classical Greek and Roman literature elegies were death, war, love and similar themes. Till seventeenth century poems written on the transience of all worldly things were called elegies. In the 17th century the term elegy began to be limited to its most common present usage: a formal and sustained lament in verse for the death of a particular person, usually ending in a consolation. Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) is an elegy on the death of his friend, Arthur Hallam. More recent is W. H. Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats (1940). Occasionally, the term is older and broader sense for sombre meditations on mortality such as Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1757) and the Duino Elegies (1912-22) of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke on the transience both of poets and of the earthly objects they write about.

Gray’s Churchyard which is not really a long and complex poem like Tennyson’s In Memoriam occupied his creative hours during perhaps six years. It is the greatest of Gray’s poems, possibly the greatest of his century. He wrote this poem after the death of his friend Richard West.The poem invokes the classical idea of memento mori, a Latin phrase which states plainly to all mankind, “Remember that you must die.” The poem was written at the end of the Augustan Age and at the beginning of the Romantic period, and the poem has characteristics associated with both literary periods. On the one hand, it has the ordered, balanced phrasing and rational sentiments of Neoclassical poetry. On the other hand, it tends toward the emotionalism and individualism of the Romantic poets; most importantly, it idealizes and elevates the common man. Dr. Johnson remarks: “The Elegy abounds with images which found a mirror in every mind and with sentiments to which every bossom returns an echo”

The poem begins musically with a description of the setting, the evening time, when the church bells ring out the day and the ‘plowman homeward plods his weary way’. After building an atmosphere of befitting evening landscape the transitional poet Gray in his poem proceeds further to elaborate the rude ancestors who lie buried in the churchyard and beyond recall at present. In fact, the Elegy runs thereafter with its true sense in perfectly elegiac mood with the reflection of these poor rustics. These are the rustics resting eternally and no morning hues, sounds or any such echoing songs sung by the poet could have the power to make them awoke. The children will no more greed them while returning home after day labors. The elegiac note permeates the entire atmosphere with the reference of these rustics, simple joys, sorrows and obviously referring to the irrevocable nature of death. Since the villagers are dead and buried in their graves, no worldly activities, which use to happen during their lifetime, will happen. With their death, this chapter of the family life is closed forever.

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Account of the “Short and Simple Annals of the Poor” – Elegy

The simple rustics had their homely occupations. They used to reap their crop smoothly with their sickles and ploughed the hard land with their horses. They joyfully took their cattle to their fields. Mighty trees fell under the heavy strokes of their axes. They were familiar with these homely occupations of the village. In an ironic tone poet Gray proceeds by saying that even though proud and ambitions men mock at the toil of these labours, the inevitability of their death is eternally true. Further what he declares becomes a glorious line –

“ The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
All that beauty, all that wealth ever gave;
They pass on to the inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

Elaborating another moral note Gray says that all the death memorials, urns, tombstone are futile to express the dead one’s exuberance back. All words of flattery, eloquence is useless to the deaf ears of these dead rustics. Even though memorials are raised, anthems in their praise swell the cathedral hall, no dead soul can be brought back to life. Songs of glory cannot induce the silent dust to resuscitate them nor can any amount of flattery prevail upon Death to release them out of its prison.

The rustics who are buried here were greatly skilled. The vast, rich and accumulated knowledge of centuries remained locked to their eyes. Extreme poverty with its chilling effect extinguished their holy or religious enthusiasm as well as the warm and generous impulses of their hearts. Here might have been resting dauntless, courageous Hampden, poetic Milton or a leading quality like Cromwell. They remained obscure and away from the glare of eminence like the gems of purest ray serene that remain under the deep ocean or like the sweet flowers that blush and waste their sweetness in the desert. Some of them, if given scope, could have becomes Miltons and Cromwells, but their promise did not sprout as their lot forbade. The poet, however, is not remorseful that they remained unknown Miltons and unsung Cromwells because basically they were simple people who shunned ambition and who avoided the gory path that leads to power.

However, it is unlucky and sorrowful of their sad lot it is a matter of consolation too. These men lived far from the scenes of feverish struggle and restless activity in crowded cities dominated by sin. They had simple, humble desires and they kept away from evil courses. At the peaceful hamlet they lived with joy and pastoral elegance –

“Far From the Madding Crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray,
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.”

On the stone is written an epitaph that tells that the man in the grave was a youth, to fortune and fame unknown, who lived a difficult life, who was deprived of the benefit ‘fair science’. But he was a largehearted man, a sincere soul whom God, in lieu of a tear shed in woe, gave him a friend which only he wanted. There is no use discussing farther his merits or his frailties as he likes his team-mates in the graveyard is now anxiously waiting to be taken into the bosom of his Father and his God.

The sentiments drawn in this poem are easily understood and widely familiar owing to its universal sentiments. The sentiments regarding the dead ones in the churchyard are so common and genuine. Again, if the trophies and memorials are missing Gray finds rightly that they are useless recalling the dead ones into the living world. Further Gray is quite justified while saying that gems, pearls, unseen are lying unknown in the vast domain of earth. The simple rustics are thus hidden from us :

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear”

The Elegy is remarkable for the simplicity of its expression. There is in it what I.A. Richards calls, “The triumph of an exquisitely adjusted tone.” The poem has the new classical qualities as well like allusiveness, use of alliteration, personification and a dignified manner. It has fine and evocative images also. The poet tries to express “what oft was thought, but never so well expressed.” Oliver Elton says, “Its stateliness of measure, its perfect style and diction and expression, all are admired by all. It speaks to every one for it expresses to perfection what everyone feels.

The poem in its attempt to work thus in universal terms and in its unrivalled purity, propriety and harmony of diction is a great realization of the ideals of its day : in its placid melancholy and rustic setting, it is perhaps slightly romantic. Although in its treatment of the common man it is heroic and even majestic, it has not the tone of Wordsworth. The poem is compact of what Tennyson called “ divine truisms”, and these are universally, if decorously, affecting. Among poems embodying the noble ideal of “What oft was thought but never so well expressed ”the Elegy must always rank high. Persons with an aversion to reflective commonplaces in poetry may, as T. S. Eliot has done, question the subtlety of the Churchyard ; but critics who admit both clarity and subtlety as merits will be content with the noble and finished transparency of this poem. Its achievement is, of its very nature, the opposite of facile: “divine truisms” are not so easily come by!

The poem is a famous elegy. Usually a poet writes an elegy on the death of his dear friend. Traditionally it is imagined that the dead person was a shepherd and his fellow shepherd, often the poet, sings sorrowfully in his praise. An elegy gradually passes from a sad state of mind to a state of hope as the poem ends.This elegy has orthodoxness . It is popular, not because of any originality of idea but because of the harmonious balance of all the elements that create a fine poetical effect.It has a universal appeal and the feeling of loss has been exquisitely expressed in a manner which is indeed unprecedented in the history of English literature.


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  1. […] Elegy which owes its origin to Greek ‘elegos’ is a song of lamentation occasioned by the death of a person whom the poet loved or admired. The subjects in Classical Greek and Roman literature elegies were death, war, love and similar themes. Till seventeenth century poems written on the transience of all worldly things were called elegies. In the 17th century the term elegy began to be limited to its most common present usage: a formal and sustained lament in verse for the death of a particular person, usually ending in a consolation. Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) is an elegy on the death of his friend, Arthur Hallam. More recent is W. H. Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats (1940). Occasionally, the term is older and broader sense for sombre meditations on mortality such as Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1757) and the Duino Elegies (1912-22) of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke on the transience both of poets and of the earthly objects they write about. … (Read More) […]

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