Places: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1751; collected in Poems by Mr. Gray, 1768

Type of work: Poetry

Places DiscussedCountry churchyard

Country Elegy Written in a Country Churchyardchurchyard. Cemetery adjoining an unnamed rural or village church. There is no way of knowing which particular country churchyard Thomas Gray was looking at or thinking about when he composed this poem. It is known, however, that he spent most of his life quietly as a professor at Cambridge University in Cambridge, England. He traveled in the summer to Scotland and the Lake District in northwest England, and as a youth he traveled to Europe. A churchyard scene such as he describes in the poem would be familiar to most Europeans.

Place is significant in Gray’s elegy. The poem opens with a peaceful, evocative description of a country churchyard at close of day. The twilight scene is simple but unmistakable. The elm and yew trees shade the graves where the common people of the town have been laid for their final rest. The wealthy folk are buried in the walls and floors of the church; their graves have statuary or beautiful decorations.

The poet muses on the lives of the persons buried there. He pictures their lives as simple farmers and housewives. The chief poignancy of the poem lies in the poet’s suggestions that some of the people buried in the churchyard may not have fulfilled the potential of their lives because of their poverty and rural isolation. Despite any talent they may have possessed, their lives were very much tied to the place in which they lived. Though they were unlearned, they had joy in their simple yet productive lives and did not look forward to death.

In the right environment some might have turned out to be great poets, like John Milton, or civic leaders, like John Hampden. He concludes the poem by considering what people may say of him when he joins those buried in the churchyard.

BibliographyBrady, Frank. “Structure and Meaning in Gray’s Elegy.” In From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, edited by Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. In his lucid and careful reading of Gray’s elegy, Brady stresses the appropriateness of the closing “epitaph.” (The book contains two other essays on the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”)Brooks, Cleanth. “Gray’s Storied Urn.” In The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. In a celebrated and important close reading of the poem, Brooks argues that the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is rich in irony and implication. Essential reading for any interpreter of the work.Lonsdale, Roger, ed. The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, Oliver Goldsmith. London: Longman, 1969. Lonsdale’s introduction to Gray’s elegy and his notes to the text are invaluable, especially on the difficulties of lines 93 to 96.Sells, A. L. Lytton, assisted by Iris Lytton Sells. Thomas Gray: His Life and Works. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1980. This biography includes frequent references to Gray’s elegy and includes a lengthy discussion of the work. Sells believes that the epitaph refers to Richard West.Weinfield, Henry. The Poet Without a Name: Gray’s “Elegy” and the Problem of History. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. A scholarly book that employs a variety of critical methods to establish the poem’s significance. Weinfield, who gives his own intricate reading of the work in chapter 3, considers the “thee” in line 93 to refer to all of humanity.
Categories: Places