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Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

For me, Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is one of the most impressive poems in the English language. I hope there are people here, both those who know the poem and those who haven’t read it yet, who would enjoy discussing it.

The poem is online at numerous sites, including
http://www.bartleby.com/101/453.html

If you don’t know the poem, I’m sure you know many of the lines from it.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave. That’s from the Elegy. As are:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife – now you know where Hardy got his title from.

He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a tear,
He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a friend.

And many more great lines.

Let’s discuss this wonderful poem!
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Gray's Elegy -- the setting

We are in the 1740s. (Gray started the poem in 1742 and finished it in 1750.)

No motorcars rushing along the unpaved roads. No airplanes rumbling overhead. No railroads. No telephones ringing, no boomboxes, no electric lights, no electric anything. No factories -- we are pre-industrial revolution.

No sound at all other than the gentle sounds of nature and whatever sounds the few humans may make as they go about their chores at day's end.

It's a quiet, still evening. Gray, out walking in the agricultural countryside, comes to a small stone church standing out by itself with its attendant graveyard. Comfortably weary near the end of the day, he stops to rest for a few moments on the moss covered stone wall around the graveyard and starts to ponder on the lessons which the graves can teach us.

Let's see him in our minds eye sitting there as we read his thoughts.
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Gray's Elegy - the first line

The title itself tells us that this will be a somber poem. The term Elegy was, in classical days, used not only for memorial poetry but also for poems noting significant events, but by the 16th century elegies were most commonly poems memorializing a life.

And "in a Churchyard" also tells us that we are in the presence of death.

So before we even start reading the poem, our thoughts are turned to somber, serious attention.

Then in the very first line, we have (omitting "the" and "of" five substantive words. Curfew, tolls, knell, parting, and day. Four of these terms have to do with ending.

The curfew was originally based on a law of William the Conqueror, who decreed that the curfew bell would be rung at 7:00, at which point the "common people," under pain of death, were to put out their candles and go to bed "to prevent the debauches, disorders, and other mischiefs frequently committed at night." Even today, a curfew means a time when people must be at home (though their candles need not be extinguished) and may not be out roaming the streets or countryside.

Church bells were rung for services and weddings, but tolled to mark deaths (see Sayer's Nine Tailors for a great discussion of the use of bells in England as late as the early 20th century).

Knell and parting are also both terms of ending.

So in the first line of the poem, we already are overwhelmed with words of passing, of parting, of death.

Is anybody interested enough for us to go on?
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Wildflower
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Re: Gray's Elegy - the first line



Everyman wrote:


Is anybody interested enough for us to go on?




Absolutely. I just printed the poem out and plan on rereading it tonight (I haven't read it since high school).
"It's never to late to be what you might have been" -George Eliot
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Laurel
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madding

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife – now you know where Hardy got his title from.
-----------------------------------
I came across that maddening word in Paradise Lost, Book 6, the other day:

Arms on Armour clashing bray'd
Horrible discord, and the madding Wheeles [ 210 ]
Of brazen Chariots rag'd; dire was the noise
Of conflict; over head the dismal hiss
Of fiery Darts in flaming volies flew,
And flying vaulted either Host with fire.

Shakespeare used it, too:

She knew her distance, and did angle for me,
Madding my eagerness with her restraint,
(All's Well that Ends Well, 5.3)

To sit and witch me, as Ascanius did
When he to madding Dido would unfold
His father's acts commenc'd in burning Troy!
(King Henry IV, Part 2, 3.2)

Hardy seems to be the last writer to use it, except for those who are quoting the phrase from him or Gray. It was just interesting to me to find it sitting there. Something to be far from, indeed.
"Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it." ~~G.K. Chesterton
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Will read today

I ran a copy of the poem as well. I'm hoping to read it today during naptime, so I can actually think while I read it! I read the first couple of stanzas last night and found it very beautiful
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Re: Will read today

When I saw the picturesue gathering of cows on page 97 of The Annotated Jane Austen I immediately thought of Gray's "Churchyard."
"Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it." ~~G.K. Chesterton
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Re: madding

I came across that maddening word in Paradise Lost, Book 6, the other day:

That sent me to the OED. Madding (originally maddyng) was apparently a fairly common word in earlier English; the OED records its first use as a verb back in the 1300s, but its first use as a adjective not until Spenser in 1579.

But the interesting thing is that Gray may have adapted his line from a line by William Drummond of Hawthornden, who I admit I never heard of but was apparently an active sonneteer. He published his Poems in 1616, one of which has not only the pastoral feel of the Elegy, but a line similar to Gray's. Here's the sonnet:

Dear wood, and you, sweet solitary place,
Where from the vulgar I estranged live,
Contented more with what your shades me give,
Than if I had what Thetis doth embrace;
What snaky eye, grown jealous of my peace,
Now from your silent horrors would me drive,
When sun, progressing in his glorious race
Beyond the Twins, doth near our pole arrive?
What sweet delight a quiet life affords,
And what it is to be of bondage free,
Far from the madding worldling's hoarse discords,
Sweet flow'ry place, I first did learn of thee:
Ah I if I were mine own, your dear resorts
I would not change with princes' stately courts.
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Re: madding

Neat find! I would say Drummond is deservedly forgotten.



Everyman wrote:
I came across that maddening word in Paradise Lost, Book 6, the other day:

That sent me to the OED. Madding (originally maddyng) was apparently a fairly common word in earlier English; the OED records its first use as a verb back in the 1300s, but its first use as a adjective not until Spenser in 1579.

But the interesting thing is that Gray may have adapted his line from a line by William Drummond of Hawthornden, who I admit I never heard of but was apparently an active sonneteer. He published his Poems in 1616, one of which has not only the pastoral feel of the Elegy, but a line similar to Gray's. Here's the sonnet:

Dear wood, and you, sweet solitary place,
Where from the vulgar I estranged live,
Contented more with what your shades me give,
Than if I had what Thetis doth embrace;
What snaky eye, grown jealous of my peace,
Now from your silent horrors would me drive,
When sun, progressing in his glorious race
Beyond the Twins, doth near our pole arrive?
What sweet delight a quiet life affords,
And what it is to be of bondage free,
Far from the madding worldling's hoarse discords,
Sweet flow'ry place, I first did learn of thee:
Ah I if I were mine own, your dear resorts
I would not change with princes' stately courts.


"Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it." ~~G.K. Chesterton
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Gray's Elegy: first three stanzas

Again, the URL for the poem:
http://www.bartleby.com/101/453.html

The first three stanzas set the scene for us. We know from the first line that it is evening, the ending of the day, but now he gives us in wonderfully quiet tones the pastoral nature of the scene. Note that by the end of the third stanza we still have no mention of a church or churchyard. But for the clue in the title, we could be sitting anywhere in the countryside.

Clearly it’s far from any city or town: as the weary plowman departs he is alone in the growing darkness, the landscape fading around him – a wonderful image and much more evocative than just saying that darkness is closing in. It is the landscape which fades from sight, not the light which disappears.

The poet’s sphere of vision, which started out seeing the lowing herd and herdsman in the distance, gradually closes in as the darkness deepens and turns his focus away from the distant to things closer.

He doesn’t say how much time passes during these stanzas, but there must be some period of time as the landscape gradually fades from view and the moon comes out.

The tower, though, still stands out, as tall things will stand out against the sky long after darkness has hidden the overall landscape from view.

The isolation and loneliness of the spot are wonderfully evoked for me by a single beetle droning, and a single owl complaining (what a wonderful image!) of his disturbance of what it considers, once darkness has fallen (remember, no electric lights, no light at all but candles and lanterns, if any are even in view) its sole domain.

One thing I find notable is the combination of sight and sound that he uses. In our modern lives we tend to think of sounds on the still air today as often sharp and intrusive – an airplane going overhead, a horn honking, heavy equipment and its back-up beeper, cell phones ringing, TVs and radios blaring, neighbors arguing, screen doors slamming, all sorts of electronic and mechanically generated noises that intrude. But he has none of that.

The sounds he hears are all muted, subdued sounds. A lowing herd. (Not bellowing or calling, but lowing, a much quieter-sounding word. A solemn stillness – very apt for a lonely churchyard. A beetle’s droning flight (not a mosquito’s insistent buzz). Drowsy tinkling (I love that image!) A moping owl’s complaint.

Every word, every phrase is carefully chosen to add to the sense of solemn quiet, of a darkening solitude. As he sets the image of a quiet, dying day, he provides a perfect setting for deep, reflective thoughts on dying lives. And the lives he will think of are as quiet, as unassuming, as non-intrusive as the surroundings are to him.
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Re: Gray's Elegy: first three stanzas

Beautiful!
"Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it." ~~G.K. Chesterton
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Re: Gray's Elegy: first three stanzas

I read the poem outside on my porch, at night, with only the crickets to keep me company. It is a very beautiful, peaceful, reflective poem. I really like your comments about the first three stanzas. There are so many different lines that I underlined - The Curfew tolls ..., The moping owl ..., Nor children run ..., etc. - all invoke clear pictures in my mind.
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Re: Gray's Elegy: first three stanzas



KristyR wrote:
I read the poem outside on my porch, at night, with only the crickets to keep me company. It is a very beautiful, peaceful, reflective poem. I really like your comments about the first three stanzas. There are so many different lines that I underlined - The Curfew tolls ..., The moping owl ..., Nor children run ..., etc. - all invoke clear pictures in my mind.

Yes, it really gives a remarkably clear picture, doesn't it?

Wait until we get into the meat of the poem!
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Re: Gray's Elegy: first three stanzas

These beginning stanzas (and the beautiful interpretation by Everyman) makes me a little melancholy for that kind of peace and solitude. As a new student of meditation, I think that it would be so much easier to find peace inside with such peace outside. There are scant few places,if any, these days, in America at least, where you can go to find such complete tranquility.
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Gray's Elegy, Stanzas 4-7

Now that Gray has set the scene of the darkening evening, the hushed stillness, the single beetle and moping owl (don’t you love that phrase “molest her ancient, solitary reign”?), we turn to the graveyard itself. In the fourth stanza, we speak of those who lie there beneath the soil.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,


A subtle point, but notice that he does not say “beneath a rugged elm...” but “those rugged elms?” He’s having you look around with his eyes, seeing what he sees. He sees a row of elms, a yew-tree which in the head of the day would cast welcome shade on the graves below, and the mounds of turf – these graves are old enough that the grass has grown over them.

Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.


Narrow cells for us may make us think of prisons, but I think for his audience they are more likely to have reminded the readers of monastery cells. In his day, jails didn’t have separate cells, but had large cells which held many prisoners, whereas the monastery would have individual cells for each monk.

And note that they but sleep. In this active Christian period, death wasn’t final or permanent, but was just the waiting for the final trump to sound and the dead to rise from their graves. Gray would certainly have known Donne’s soonet Death Be Not Proud, with its great ending lines
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.


So those who have died are now merely sleeping in this quiet, peaceful graveyard, beneath the elms and yew-tree and the green turf, waiting for the time to arise and go to heaven.

Stanza five turns us away from the quiet evening and the graves to take a look back at the lives these dead have left behind them. Just as stanza four ends with them asleep, stanza five takes us to awakening. (One short sleep past, we wake...) In wonderfully evocative lines Gray turns them for a moment back into their living, breathing selves, living their simple, rural, agricultural lives to the music of the breezy call of morn, the tittering swallow, the cock’s shrill clarion.

Notice that he is back to using sounds, but what a difference! From a “solemn stillness” to “the breezy call.” From a droning beetle to a twittering swallow. From a moping, complaining owl to a cock’s shrill clarion.

Rather than being dead in their narrow cell, they arise out of their lowly bed.

The next stanza gives us a picture of a happy, simple home life. A blazing hearth, and busy housewife, happy children running to welcome daddy home, and in a line I love, “or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.” Not something you would see in the great country houses of the rich or titled, or the tall mansions of the cities, where the return from the office or club would be more likely to be welcomed with “good evening, Father,” or even “good evening, sir.” This is a cottage life, where father comes in, sits down in his chair, tired after a long day in the fields, to take off his muddy boots, and is set upon by his eager children climbing up for the welcome kiss.

As stanza six gives us a glimpse of the home life he has left, stanza seven takes us with him to the field. Those now sleeping under these mold’ring heaps were once strong, vibrant countrymen who sliced the harvest down with long strokes of their sickles, broke the stubborn glebe (Latin for ground) with their simple plows, drove their teams happily into the fields, or with mighty strokes felled the forest to make new fields or cut trees for lumber or firewood.

The men and women of stanzas six and seven were the backbone of the agricultural world, living simple but happy and useful lives.
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Where is everybody?

This is supposed to be a discussion, not a soliloquy!
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Re: Where is everybody?

Sorry! I was waiting to see what you would say next! I love stanza 6, the clamboring children are a daily occurence in our house right now. It does remind me though that this time in our lives is fleeting and we need to be thankful for it. Our lives may not be glamorous, but they are wonderful.
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Re: Gray's Elegy, Stanzas 4-7



Everyman wrote:
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.




Is there another meaning for the word rude here?
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Re: Gray's Elegy, Stanzas 4-7



Wildflower wrote:


Everyman wrote:
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.




Is there another meaning for the word rude here?


Excellent question!

Very much so. First definition in the OED is "Uneducated, unlearned; ignorant; lacking in knowledge or booklearning."

Actually, that definition has definite elitist undertones. These country folk may have been ignorant of Greek and Latin, Euclid and higher math, but they were definitely NOT ignorant of predicting the weather, how to grow the best crops, how to butcher meat safely, thatch roofs, ditch and hedge fields, raise and breed cattle, sheer sheep and card wool, weave cloth, and a whole lot of other skills that kept the learned and literate fed, clothed, and housed.

There are a lot more kinds of learning than booklearning! As the poem will shortly tell us!
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Gray's Elegy - stanzas 8-11

Let’s look at the structure of the poem so far.

Stanzas 1-4 set the scene as a quiet evening in a country churchyard with the rude forefathers asleep in their quiet cells.

Stanzas 5-7 talked about the lives of those country folk while they were still living, their happy homes and useful working lives.

Now let’s turn our attention to stanzas 8-11 . Here, in some powerful and memorable lines, Gray urges us not to look down on these simple lives or their lack of celebratory monuments.

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.


Their lives may have been simple. They may not have been rich and renowned, may not have been mentioned in the halls of power, but don’t, in today’s language, put them down, or “dis” them. Their annals (annals are a record, usually covering one year in chronological order, of the activities of a person or organization) may be short and simple; there may not be much to say; but they should not be looked down as unworthy. Theirs, too, were lives of value.

(In another instance of Gray’s Elegy providing a book title, in 1815 Legh (Leigh) Richmond wrote Annals of the Poor.) The text can be read here
http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/richmond/richmond.html

[By the way, while the rhyme of toil and smile isn’t a close rhyme under today’s pronunciation, in earlier days toil was pronounced to sound like tile.]

And then in the stanza which contains one of the best known lines of the poem, Gray points out to us that the mot exalted lives and these simple lives wind up in the same place in the end – in the grave. Death may not be proud, says Donne, but replies Gray, neither should life.

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.


What wonderful images. The boast of heraldry. Think of Sir Elliot in Persuasion poring over the Baronatage. Think of the Marquis in A Tale of Two Cities riding down the insignificant peons. Think even today of the organizations for those whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, boasting of their ancient lineages. What good, Gray says, does that do them in the end? The pomp of pow’r; pompous indeed are many of the rich and powerful (Donald Trump, anyone?). But where do they wind up in the end? You may have the beauty of a Miss America, the wealth of a Bill Gates, but just like those whose turfed graves inspire his poem, they, too, will wind up as ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

And, Gray goes on, don’t blame them if they don’t have monuments in a cathedral, great stone tombs bedecked with carved angels, or a magnificent funeral with pealing organ echoing down the aisles of the church. What good, in the end, are those things to the dead? Read these wonderful lines:

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.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt'ry soothe the dull cold ear of death?


The images Gray invokes are, to me, simply magnificent. “The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.” A funeral may have glorious organ music echoing through the furthest spaces of the vast church, but the dead can’t hear it. Can “flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death”? Even the most flattering funeral oration is unheard by the dead. It is for the living only; it gives no benefit to the dead.

These glorious lines give us much to think about.
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