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GRAY'S

ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCHYARD


Introduction
Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is
among the greatest and most popular poems in the
English language. Despite certain flaws found by the
critics and despite the difference of opinions this
poem has continued to delight and enthrall the
readers ever since it was written. With its deep
human interest, its profundity and nobility of
sentiment, the stateliness of its measure and its
perfect style and diction it speaks to every one, for it
expresses to perfection what every one feels.
According to Douglas Bush it is the best known
secular poem in the language in which a tender heart
beats under the stiff brocade of style. Even Dr.
Johnson, who was not very much pleased with Gray's
Pindaric odes, acknowledges the beauty and
greatness of the Elegy when he remarks: "The
Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror
in every mind and with sentiments to which every
bosom returns an echo."
Popularity of the Poem
The popularity of the Elegy has transcended the limits
of time and place. It has been widely read and
admired in all places and in all times. Grierson and
Smith regard it as the most widely known poem of the
18th century alongwith Oliver Goldsmith's Deserted
Village. And it is probably still the most popular and
the best loved poem in the English language.
The Elegy was first circulated among Gray's friends in
a manuscript form. They were highly impressed by
the poem and thought it fit to be published. One of
his friends Walpole arranged for its publication. It was
first published by Robert Dodsley on Feb 15, 1751.
The poem was an instant hit and elicited favourable

response and several reprints were made in Gray's


own time. It has been translated into a large number
of languages like Greek, German, Hebrew, Dutch,
Spanish, Russian, Latin, Italian, Japaneese etc.
Reasons of Popularity
Several critics have advanced many theories for the
immense popularity enjoyed by Gray's Elegy. Matthew
Arnold quotes Dr. Gregory as writing "Gray told me
with a great deal of acrimony that the elegy owes its
popularity entirely to the subject, and the public
would have received it as well if it had been written in
prose." This remark implies that the poetic merits or
style have nothing to contribute to the popularity of
the poem. It is certainly an understatement about the
poetic beauties of the poem.
In fact, the popular appeal of the Elegy may be said to
be due to both its theme and poetic techniques. It
deals with the theme of death and the transitoriness
of all worldly glory and human achievements. It also
deals with the lot of common men on this earth.
These universally appealing themes contributed much
to the enduring popularity of the poem. The
melancholic note of the poem is in keeping with the
poetic taste of Gray's age and it enhances its appeal.
However, the poetic beauties of the poem are no less
important than its theme. Gray's handling of the
elegiac quatrain is superb. The language and diction
are simple and devoid of unnecessary ornamentation.
There is a dignity and grace in the movement of
verse. An apt use of monosyllabic words, balanced
phrases and parallel structure lend a beauty and
force to the lines of each quatrain. There is a strong
autobiographical note in the poem which may appeal
to many readers. But what is most appealing is the
realisation caused by the poem that all 'the paths of
glory lead but to the grave'. It would not be proper to
undermine either of the two elements - thought and

style - in the poem. Both are complementary and both


add beauty and appeal to the poem.
Date, Occasion and Circumstances of Composition
It is difficult to assign any exact date of composition
of the Elegy. However, a rough idea can be formed on
the basis of certain evidences. Gray's friend Marson
has mentioned some of Gray's poems written in
August 1742 in his Memories. He remarked "I am
inclined to believe that the Elegy Written in a Country
Churchyard was begun, if not completed, at this time
also." On the basis of this remark, the Elegy may be
said to have been begun in 1742 during the period of
Gray's annual stay at Stoke Poges. In the autumn of
1746, Gray wrote to a friend Wharton from Stoke
Poges: "The Muse. I doubt, is gone, and has left me in
far worse company; if she returns, you will hear of
her." This means that he was not able to write much
of the poem by 1746. In fact, he could write only
some portions of it, that he referred to, in another
letter to Wharton, as 'a few autumnal verses.'
According to Walpole "The Churchyard was posterior
to Richard West's death (1742) atleast three to four
years." It is most likely that the Elegy was begun
about the year 1746 at Stoke Poges or atleast
planned there. Gray may have taken some stanzas,
already composed, to Cambridge, and added some
more stanzas to it, there. It may said to have been
left incomplete for sometime, then taken up again
and completed by the time of the death of his aunt
Mary Antrobus, in Nov 1749. Gray enclosed a copy of
of the complete poem to his friend Walpole with a
letter which he wrote on June 12, 1750 from Stoke
Poges.
The Elegy is usually said to have been written to
commemorate Gray's friend, Richard West who died in
1742. The Youth referred to in the poem is usually
identified as West. Some critics identify this youth

with Gray himself. However, Joseph Foladore opposes


the idea of identifying the youth with either West or
Gray. He remarks : "attempts to make either West or
Gray, the subject of the Elegy invariably pauperise the
poem and reflect profoundly on the author's artistic
intelligence." Even if the poem is said not to be
directly influenced by West's death, its gloomy
emotional tone may be said to be due to Gray's sense
of loss over his friend's early death.
The Title and Different Versions of the Poem
'Stanzas wrote in Country Churchyard' was the title
which Gray had originally given to the poem as it
exists in early draft in the form of Eton College
manuscript. It was on the suggestion of his friend
Marson that he altered the title to the present one.
The poem, under the new title, exists in the form of
two manuscripts preserved at Pembroke College and
the British museum. In its final published version, the
poem is included in two books, Bentley's Designs
(1753) and Gray's Poems (1768).
The poem, as existing in the form of Eton College
manuscript, contains only 22 stanzas including those
four concluding stanzas which were later omitted
from the expanded version. Gray thoroughly revised
and expended the poem. In its present form, the
poem consists of thirty two quatrains or 128 lines in
all. With the addition of new stanzas the size of the
poem was increased. Certain minor variations were
also introduced. An example may be found in the 15th
stanza (lines 57-60) where the names of Cato, Tully
and Caesar were replaced by those of Hampden,
Milton and Cromwell probably in order to avoid the
use of classical allusions. The three stanzas
constituting the 'Epitaph' were also added in the
revised version. Objections were raised against the
addition of the epitaph and poet W S Landor ridiculed
this saying "tin kettle tied to the poem's tail.

Moreover, in the revised version personal references


were allotted more space. The concluding three
stanzas are concerned with the poet himself and
contain a repetition of what has already been said
about him in the main body of the poem.
Sources and Background
Like many great poems, Gray's Elegy owes much to
several sources, and belongs to certain traditions
continuing in the first half of the 18th century. The
tradition of 'landscape' poetry to which Thomson's
Seasons and Pope's Windsor Forest belong, may be
said to have provided Gray with an idea of the type
for his Elegy. Gray's philosophical musings against
the background of natural scenery in the countryside,
have been inspired by this tradition. The melancholy
and subjectivity of the 'Grave yard' poetry accounts
for the tone of the Elegy.
There are other sources on which Gray may be said to
have drawn much. The personified abstractions
appearing in the Elegy have been inspired by the neo
classical poetry of his time. The moralising manner of
the Elegy owes much to that of the poems of the 17th
and 18th centuries. For the stanzas employed in the
poem, Gray owes much to several existing poems. The
quatrains in pentameter is modeled on the stanzas
used by James Hammond in his Love Elegies which
were adaptations from the Latin poet Tibullus.
According to D C Tovey "the quatrain of ten syllables
in which the Elegy was written had been used before,
but never, perhaps with conspicuous success, except
in Dryden's Annus Mirabilis. In Gray's hands it
acquired a new beauty and a music of its own." Gray's
elegiac quatrains, though based on the stanzas used
by other poets, combine beauty, melody, and graceful
movement, and thus prove an improvement on the
earlier models.
John Butt has nicely summed up the various sources

of thought, content and setting in the The Elegy: "The


Curfew itself he drawn from a bell in Dante's
Purgatorio that from far off seemed to lament the
dying day, though he must also have recalled it
sounding in Ll Pensoroso.... . He could not resist
adopting Lucretius's pity for the dead house holder, a
vignette that was later to appeal both to Collins and
Burns and as he re-expressed it in the sixth stanza of
the Elegy, he shows by a touch here and there that he
recalled both Dryden's translation and Thomson's
adaptation of it in Winter."
Theme and Subject
The themes dealt in the Elegy are familiar, and there
is nothing original in them. According to Douglas
Bush "the Elegy is a mosaic of traditional motifs,
classical and modern." The dominant theme of the
poem is death. It deals with the death of the rude fore
fathers of the village, death as a common occurence
in the world and the anticipated death of the youth
who may be the poet himself or the his friend West in
whose memory the poem has been written. In fact the
shadow of death hovers over the poem. The opening
line itself, with the curfew tolling 'the knell of the
parting day' is indicative of death.
Another theme treated in the Elegy is the
transitoriness of all human glory and joy. The poet
attempts to show that all 'the paths of glory lead but
to the grave.' By implication, the futility of all human
ambitions and aspirations is hinted at. The contrast
between the lives of the rich and poor or the
privileged and the unprivileged forms another theme
in the poem. The poet shows how the poor are not in
a position to enjoy the luxuries and happiness of life
in this world. Their poverty proves an obstacle in the
path of their progress. But this poverty is a blessing
in disguise. If it does not allow people to rise higher,
it also restrains them from doing evil, by limiting their

power to do so. The rich, on the other hand, possess


the power and means to do good to themselves and
the world. But they also have powers to commit
mischief and bring destruction on innocent people.
The poem also deals with the desire for fame, the
desire to be remembered after death. This theme is
treated along with other themes in the poem. The
poet shows how even the poor rustics try to
perpetuate their memory through inscriptions on
some 'frail memorial' decked with 'uncouth rhymes'
and 'shapeless sculpture'.
Despite the dominance of the theme of death, the
Elegy also presents a nostalgic longing for life. It
shows how no man dies without casting one longing
lingering look behind. A desire for sympathy and for
being remembered after death is present in the
poem.
Thus the Elegy deals with a number of themes. These
themes may not be original but Gray's manner of
treating them has lent a force and urgency to them.
Critical Summary of the Poem
The Elegy is a poem consisting of 128 lines divided
into 32 quatrains including three stanzas devoted to
the epitaph. Each quatrain is self contained and
usually conveys a complete sense. The movement of
thought from one stanza to another takes place in a
smooth manner. The structure of the whole poem is
skillfully organised and gives the impression of a
carefully designed edifice.
The first stanza (lines 1-4) presents a beautiful
picture of the natural scene in the evening, and sets
the tone and atmosphere of the poem. The day is over
and the cattle are moving slowly after the day's toil.
The ploughmen, fatigued after the day's toil, are
returning home. The poet/speaker is left alone
engulfed in darkness like the rest of the world.

All this description is highly pictorial in manner and


conjures up beautifully the gloomy atmosphere of the
evening. Perhaps, the poet aims at preparing the
readers to read about his gloomy and pensive
thoughts. Graham Hough remarks "Gray is here far
less concerned with nature as an object of
contemplation than with the readers -- the readers
whom he wishes to lull into a resigned, acquiescent,
summer evening frame of mind."
Stanza 11 and 111 continue the description of the
calm and quiet atmosphere of the evening. While the
darkness slowly descends on earth, 'the glimmering
landscape' fades, and the atmosphere is calm and
still. This calm and stillness is disturbed only by the
noise made by the wheeling beetle and the tinkling of
the drowsy cattle in the 'distant fold'. The breaking of
the silence of the evening is also caused by the
'moping owl' from the 'ivy mantled' tower, who
complains to the moon about the solitary traveler
who has encroached into his solitary kingdom of
solitude.
If in the first stanza, there is fine verbal imagery, in
these two stanzas, beautiful auditory images have
been presented. The use of alliteration and
onomatopoeia (as in drowsy tinkling) is remarkable.
Stanza 1v - v11 contain a touching reference to the
rude fore fathers of the village who lie buried beneath
the shade of the yew tree. They are enjoying a lasting
sleep and cannot be aroused by the touch of the
morning breeze or the twittering of the swallow, or
the clarion call of the cock, or the 'echoing horn'.
They will now not enjoy the comforts and privileges of
domestic life, that they enjoyed while they were alive.
The fire will not burn in their hearths, the house wife
will no longer keep busy in her domestic work, and

the children will not rush to their father to welcome


him back home by climbing up his knees and sharing
his loving kiss. The poet describes how, during their
life time, these dead ancestors of the village used to
plough the hard fields and reap the harvest. They
used to drive their cattle joyfully to the field and
when they struck at the trees to chop them, these
trees yielded to their stroke. These fore fathers thus
performed, during their life time, the normal
activities and lived a simple happy life, as any body in
the village would do.
Now dead, they cannot perform any of these
activities. Lyly Glazier believes "each rude fore father
of the hamlet has become a type for man kind. There
is thus a double Every man in the poem -- the poet
observer who is every man still alive and reflecting
about death, and each rude fore father, who is Every
man already dead and underground. They merge
together later in the poem, when the poet suddenly
projects himself into his own grave and from there
reflects about his own hopeless desire for
immortality."
In stanzas v111 - x1 the poet asks the ambitious and
highly placed people not to mock at the 'useful toil',
'homely joys' and 'destiny obscure' of the poor.
According to him, all the pride and glory and power
associated with beauty, pomp and wealth, is
transitory, and awaits the final doom. The poet
advises the proud men not to blame these poor
people if grand memorials are not erected to
commemorate them or high sounding praises are not
heaped on them after their death. He is of the view
that by erecting memorials or busts of these dead
men, we cannot bring them back to life. Similarly,
songs of praise and honour cannot persuade death to
spare their lives. Death is inevitable and will come to
all whether they be rich or poor. The theme of

contrast between rich and poor, the great and the


humble, is referred to in these stanzas. The difference
between rich and poor is illusory so far as death is
concerned. Death is a great leveller. According to Lyly
Glazier "just as the preceding stanzas presented the
paradox of death in life for the obscure country men,
so these four stanzas present the same paradox for
the honoured and flattered great. Life is for all an
ironic paragraph ending in death."
The next seven stanzas (x11 - xv111) present the
poet's view about the overpowering of life by death,
which makes any human achievement by the poor
people impossible. The dead people burried in the
churchyard had much potentialities for development.
If chance had been given they might have become
great men, great politicians, great poets. But their
enthusiasm was chilled by poverty and they could not
benefit from the rich treasures of human knowledge.
The poet believes that many men remain unknown
like gems that lie hidden in the dark caves of ocean,
and like many a flower which grows in the desert
where its beauty and fragrance remain unenjoyed and
unadmired. Similarly, among those dead forefathers
of the village, there may be somebody who might
have become great like Hampden, Milton and
Cromwell. But their merits remained unrecognized
and their talents unutilised. It was not their destiny
to command respect and receive praise in the senate
or to defy pain and ruin. Nor was it in their lot to
make their country happy and prosperous, and thus
to become famous in history.
However, if these poor people were restrained from
becoming great and famous, and their powers of
doing good were held in check, their capacity for
harming others was also limited by their inability to
do much in life. Their fate confined their crimes or
forbade them to ascend the throne by violent

methods or gaining any other advantage through


cruel means. These people did not have to hide truth
or supress feelings of shame or to foster luxury and
pride through flattery. The poet means to point out
here both the advantages and disadvantages of
death. If it deprives man of his chances to become
great and renowned and to do good to others, it also
restrains him from acts involving cruelty, selfishness
and violence. In a way, therefore, death is good for
man.
In stanza x1x, the poet describes the life led by the
dead forefathers. According to him, they never tried
to give up the quiet tenor of their life which was lived
in aloofness from the maddening struggles of people
in this world. They led a retired life in seclusion and
peace. The poet thus points to the unambitious life of
the poor as contrasted with the life of the rich and
great whose lives are usually full of ambitions, luxury
and hectic activities.
Stanzas xx and xx1 convey the efforts to perpetuate
the memory of the dead rustics. To protect the bodily
remains of these people from insult a 'frail memorial'
has been erected which has been decorated with
'uncouth rhymes' written by some illiterate poet in
their memory and with 'shapeless sculpture'. This
memorial reminds one of these dead people, produces
feelings of pity and sympathy in one's heart, and
inspires the passer's by to pay a tearful tribute to
them. The illiterate muse or stone cutter poet has
engraved their names, years of birth and death and
the text of Bible that teach them to accept death
gracefully.
This brings us to the end of the first part of the
movement of the poem. The second part may be said
to consist of stanzas xx11 - xxx11. "The double irony
of man's existence is exposed in an antithesis which

divides the poem into nearly equal parts -- the first


part (stanza 1-21) governed by the concept of the
skeleton beneath the skin, and the second (stanzas
22-32) governed by the voice of life crying out of the
ashes of the dead."
Stanzas xx11 and xx111 express the dead men's
nostalgic feeling for the world and their desire to be
remembered and honoured after their death. Nobody
wants to leave this world as a prey to 'dumb
forgetfulness'. Nobody goes away from this world
without desiring to be remembered after death and
without casting one longing lingering look behind.
The dying man desires some dear person to shed
tears on his death as a mark of mourning. Even from
his grave, the dead man desires to be remembered
with love and sympathy. Even in the ashes of the
dead man, there are the sparks of a craving for love
and sympathy of his fellow beings, which is natural in
man. These two stanzas nicely depict a man's desire
for the perpetuation of his memory after his death.
Stanzas xx1v - xx1x describe the fate of the poet
himself or of the speaker. The person addressed to in
these stanzas may be an imaginary person or an
actual poet with whom Gray may have been
acquainted during his stay at Stoke Poges or Gray
himself. He relates the 'artless tale' about the
'unhonoured dead' in this poem. Someday some
wayfarer may come, and enquire about his fate. Then
some old peasant will tell this wayfarer (some
kindered spirit) that he had usually seen the poet at
dawn rushing towards the upland so as to reach there
before sunrise. There beneath the beech, he would lie
down and keep looking at the murmuring stream. He
would wander there muttering crazily as if he were
alone and full of anxieties or had felt frustration in
love. The old peasant would further tell they wayfarer
that one day he did not find the poet on his favourite

spot. Nor was he there the next day. The following


day his body was seen being carried away towards
the churchyard where he was burried. The peasant
would ask the wayfarer to approach the poet's grave
and read the epitaph engraved on it.
Thus death seems to have overpowered the poet
whom was writing about the death of the rustic
forefathers of the village and pointing out their desire
to be remembered after death. The similar desire of
the poet is fulfilled by the engraving of the Epitaph on
the grave. In these stanzas preceeding the Epitaph,
Lyly Glazier finds "a note of mawkish self-pity, which
lends weight to the belief that Gray wrote this poem
in a fit of self commiseration to find consolation for
the world's neglect."
The last three stanzas of the poem (xxx-xxx11)
constitute the Epitaph supposed to have been
engraved on the grave of the poet speaker. The poet
speaker, referred to in the Epitaph as 'A youth to
fortune and fame unknown', may be Gray's friend
Richard West in whose memory the Elegy is said to
have been written, or Gray himself, or some
imaginary rustic stone cutter poet. His identity is a
matter of controversy among critics. According to
James Sutherland, the narrator of the poem and the
subject of the Epitaph "are the same person and that
person is described as an educated young gentleman,
not as an unlettered village stone cutter."
The Epitaph describes an obscure youth of humble
birth and melancholic nature. This youth was
unknown to fortune and fame, but he acquired much
knowledge and learning. He was very sincere and
generous. His life was full of misery and sorrow; but
God recompensed him for his gifts, in the form of a
friend. The concluding four lines of the Epitaph advise
the reader not to ask to disclose or discuss his merits

or his weaknesses. Both these are of no consequence


now that he has resigned himself to God, whose grace
he hopes to receive in the end.
The Epitaph is said by critics like Prof. Shepard to
have been written as a separate poem on Richard
West, and later to have been joined to the poem so as
to seem to form an integral part of it. It carries a
strong personal note, and may have been written
about Gray himself in anticipation of his death. D C
Tovey is of the opinion that the Epitaph "is
unquestionably the weakest part of the poem, and
was, perhaps written about 1742, and inserted in the
Elegy as an after thought." According to Oliver Elton
the Epitaph "is usually felt to be a drop .... into his
more factitious style."
The Epitaph may have been a separate poem or may
have been inserted later into the body of the Elegy:
but its importance cannot be doubted. According to
Cleanth Brooks "the Epitaph is not to be judged in
isolation. It is part of a context, and a very rich
context. We have to read it in terms of the conditions
of certain dramatic propriety which the context sets
up." Discarding the view of Landor, which holds the
Epitaph to be "a tin kettle tied to the tail of the
poem", Frank H Ellis remarks that the Epitaph is
actually the conclusion of a very tightly organised
rhetorical structure. It supplies perspective and
sympathy for the character whose life illustrates
everything the poem has to say." So it may be said
that the poem ends fittingly with the Epitaph which is
not out of tune with the harmonious whole.
Critical Appreciation
The Elegy is one of the greatest and finest of Gray's
poems and marks a stage in the development of his
poetic genius. It reveals a growing democratic

sentiment and romantic mood of the poet. Instead of


confining himself to the saloons, coffee houses or the
fashionable society of the town, Gray undertakes in
this poem to deal with the life of the rustic people of
the village, to present the 'short and simple annals of
the poor'. Wit its lyricism, its treatment of nature, its
melancholic mood and its emotional and imaginative
vigour, the Elegy reveals a romantic spirit and marks
a shift from the neoclassical poetry of the Augustan
age, towards the Romantic poetry of the coming age.
It is essentially transitional in character and ushers in
the era of romanticism.
Universal Appeal: There is little originality or novelty
of thought or sentiment expressed in the Elegy. It
expresses the feeling for the common man, which
everybody has. The poet's views about death as an
inevitable fact of life, are quite common. The
presentation of the contrast between the destiny of
the rich and the poor, is based on conventional views.
The thought about fame and obscurity, human
ambition and pride are quite old too. The Elegy
abounds in what Tennyson calls 'divine truisms that
make us weep'. However, Gray has lent great force to
these common thoughts and truisms through his
unique expression that they have become universally
appealing. The universal appeal of the poem is an
important source of its greatness and popularity. The
commonest man finds the Elegy echoing his own
feelings and sentiments. The poem transcends the
limits of time and place, and appeals to people
everywhere and in all times.
Originality: Despite its treatment of common themes
and sentiments, the poem is not totally devoid of
originality. Dr. Johnson acknowledges the originality
of the four stanzas beginning 'yet even these bones'.
Gray's originality and individual talent may be seen in
his condensed expression of great ideas in highly

quotable phrases like " Full many a flower blush to die


unseen" and "On some fond breast the parting soul
relies". Herbert W Starr points out " probably no
other poem of the same length has contributed so
many famous phrases to our language." Gray's
originality also lies in the fact that he raised the voice
of democratic sympathy much before the French or
the American revolution, aiming at the ideas of
liberty, equality, and fraternity, had taken place. He
may be said to have inspired the democratic
sentiments of Wordsworth who, much later, wrote
about poor rustics like Michael, the leech gatherer
and the wagoner. Carl J Webber remarks "Thomas
Gray is the pioneer literary spokesman for the
ordinary man, the patron saint of the unknown
soldier... . Gray's rude forefathers were also the
forefathers of Wordsworth's Wagoner, Michael and
Peterbell."
Gray's originality also lies in his treatment of the non
fulfillment of the desires of common man and the non
utilisation of his powers and talents because of lack
of proper opportunities. The poem may be called an
elegy on the premature death of the talents and
energies of the poor. Another mark of Gray's
originality is, that instead of addressing it to the rich,
great or privileged men, he addresses this poem
about common man to common men and seeks to
elicit a sympathetic response for their common lot.
The adoption of the elegiac quatrain in place of the
conventional heroic couplet and the novel use of
abstract personifications also reveal Gray's
originality.
Humanity & Democratic Sentiments: The Elegy is
remarkable for its humanity and its concern for the
lot of common human beings on this earth. It may be
put alongwith Keats's Ode to a Nightingale, which
deals with the lot of man on this earth. Although it

hints at the inevitability of the end of all human glory


and the futility of power, wealth, ambition and pride,
it is mainly concerned with the destiny of the common
man and seems to lament the loss and waste of so
much talent and energy of the poor because of lack of
opportunity. A note of exultation may also be found in
Gray's view that if poverty proved hinderance in the
way of the advancement of the common rustic people,
it also restrained them from doing evil and practising
violence to gain material ends.
The democratic note may be found in the poem in the
form of idea of equality and helplessness of both the
rich and the poor before death. Death is a great
leveller. If it deprives the poor of the opportunities
ton rise, it also mercilessly snatches the power and
the glory of the rich. Both alike await the inevitable
hour of death and both feel helpless to do anything.
The vanity of human wishes and aspirations has been
nicely pointed out in the poem. The distinction
between the lives of the rich and the poor is thus
obliterated by death.
Melancholic Note: The Elegy is characterised by a
melancholic note. The dominant mood of the poem is
one of gloom and sadness. The shadow of death
hovers throughout the poem and the regret over the
frustration of human efforts and hopes is inherent in
its tone. The opening scene of the poem is steeped in
melancholy and the musings on human destiny in the
later parts are also of melancholic nature. The
description of the rustic poet also gives a gloomy
picture of his life. Thus, the whole atmosphere and
mood of the poem is tinged with melancholy.
According to W V Moody and R M Lovett the Elegy "is
the finest flower of that literature of melancholy
Which Gray may be said to be haunted by a Hamlet
like melancholy and sense of frustration. The thirty
two stanzas of the poem embody almost all the

emotions and reflections that a man commonly feels


in the presence of death.
Personal & Autobiographical Element: Besides being
an expression of general or universal feelings and
sentiments, and dealing with the lot of the common
man, the Elegy contains some autobiographical or
personal elements. It deals with the life, destiny and
anticipated death of the poet himself. He was, as Gray
shows in the Elegy, a man of melalancholy and
wayward disposition, who lived a secluded life 'far
from the madding crowd's ignoble strife.' He was, as
he tells in the Epitaph, of humble birth and lived a life
of obscurity and seclusion. In spite of his birth in a
poor family, he had acquired much knowledge and
learning but remained unknown of fame and fortune.
He was sincere and had great gifts of mind and heart.
Living a melancholic life, he faced much misery and
had to shed tears frequently.
Unlike the neo classical poetry, the Elegy deals with
the poet's personal feelings and reflects his own
mood like romantic poetry. In the original draft of the
poem, consisting of twenty two stanzas, quantity of
personal references was less than what it is in the
expanded version.
Moral Tone: The Elegy is didactic in nature and seeks
to convey certain morals about human life. Gray
exhorts the proud and ambitious people not to laugh
at the simple life and obscure destiny of the poor. He
tells them that they are much like the poor that they
also have to die one day and leave all their glory,
wealth and luxuries in this world. The poem lays
emphasis on the transitoriness 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 have
to do.
Technical Beauties: The Elegy is remarkable for its
simplicity of expression, and Gray says in it plainly
what he has to say. There is nothing in the poem
which can be called extraordinary but there is what I
A Richards terms "that triumph of an exquisitely
adjusted tone." The poet gives a perfect expression to
his feelings and sentiments. Several critics tend to
criticise the Elegy on account of its common places
and truisms. These common places are good and have
what Graham Hough believes to be 'their compulsive
force'. In them, Gray has generalised his personal
views and reflections. According to Hough "they are
compelling because they are not only what they first
appear, majestic statements about the common lot:
they are also the solution of Gray's personal problem,
and perhaps the only one possible in his day."
The Elegy possesses qualities like the stately measure
of its verse, and the wonderful felicity and perfection
of its style. It contains the neoclassical qualities like
allusiveness, alliteration, personification and a
dignified manner. The Elegy has not the delicate
shadowiness of 'Ode to Evening' and its monumental
style and weight of thinking seem beyond Collins. The
verse of the Elegy is polished and musical and has a
haunting quality.
The reflections on life and death make the Elegy a
philosophical poem but it is also a sort of dramatic
monologue in which the speaker has addressed
imaginary readers or listeners. The poem is a
formalised composition and has a rhetorical
condensed expression. Historically speaking, the
Elegy marks a shift from the neo classicism of the
18th century to the romanticism of the early 19th

century. It foreshadows the romantic poetry of Burns,


Wordsworth, Shelley and others.
Despite its melancholic tone and its harping on the
transitoriness of human glory, it would be difficult to
agree with Lyly Glazier's view about the Elegy that
"the net effect of the whole poem is negative and
fatalistic." We may find the positive effect of the
poem in the fact that it does not glorify death. It lays
emphasis on a desire for immortality signified by the
desire to be remembered or to perpetuate human by
memorials.
It 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.
The Elegy is certainly a great poem. Its universal
appeal, its humanity and its broader concern with the
human condition are as much contributive to its
greatness as its poetic merits. Different factors may
be said responsible for its greatness. To conclude it
may suffice to quote Douglas Bush who has nicely
summed up its greatness, he remarks, "one obvious
reason is power of style which makes almost every
line an example of 'what oft was thought but never so
well expressed.' Images, though generalised, can be
nonetheless evocative. The antitheses are more than
antitheses; they are a succession of dynamic and
ironic contrast between ways and views of life. And all
this inward force comes from a full sensibility working
under precise control. In its combination of personal
attachment and involvement, as well as in its

generalise texture, the Elegy is in some sense an 18th


century Lycidas."