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Everyman
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Gray's Elegy: a brief digression

Here I would like to digress for a moment for a general comment about Gray’s language and tone. He is speaking of the most serious subjects, life and death. He is giving a lesson – one might even say a sermon -- on pride and vanity and the true value of lives. As we go on, we will continue to be challenged to think more deeply than we very often do. But Gray does all this in plain, simple, direct, unornamented language. There is not a single exclamation point in the entire poem. There is not a single excited exhortation “Oh, look!”, no strings of exotic adjectives clamoring for attention. Simple, quiet, basic language simply presented.

Contrast this with, say, Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, another poem on life and death (and life again), which cries out to be howled into the teeth of a gale. Contrast it with Lear’s “Howl, howl, howl, howl! O! you are men of stones: / Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so / That heaven’s vaults should crack. She’s gone for ever.”

These are dramatic ways of talking of life and death. But Gray takes an entirely different approach. Quiet, simple, the whole poem can be read almost in a conversational tone. He's talking to us, not orating or preaching. No dramatic rhetoric needed here.

Yet how enormously powerful.
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Wildflower
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Re: Gray's Elegy - stanzas 8-11



Everyman wrote:
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.




Yes, Gray definitely provokes humbling thought here, but are they meant that way? Is he saying that no matter what your wealth, when you die you should just be unceremoniuosly dumped into the ground and covered up and that's it? If so, pomp or not, I don't think that I agree.
"It's never to late to be what you might have been" -George Eliot
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Re: Gray's Elegy - stanzas 8-11



Wildflower wrote:
Yes, Gray definitely provokes humbling thought here, but are they meant that way? Is he saying that no matter what your wealth, when you die you should just be unceremoniously dumped into the ground and covered up and that's it? If so, pomp or not, I don't think that I agree.>

No, I don't think he's saying that. After all, he appreciates the quiet stillness of the graves he is looking at, and the respect for the dead (this will come out more as the poem goes on). What I think he's saying is that we should value and appreciate the humble as much as the proud, the poor as much as the rich. All the pomp of a royal funeral in a grand cathedral and burial in a marble tomb does no more for the dead than a simple, respectful service in a local church and, as we will see in the final lines, a simple, but heartfelt, engraving on a plain headstone.
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Re: Gray's Elegy - stanzas 8-11

To jump in, (and add to that) these stanzas emphasize that, regardless of rank, power, wealth or beauty, we will all die. Death as the great equalizer? Maybe this takes it a bit further than Gray intends.

What I find very interesting about these stanzas is Gray's treatment of the "well-to-do"--he does not seem to be scolding them, just musing over his own observations while strolling through this grave yard. I;m wondering if you all get the same feeling, or do you read this as subtle criticism of the affluent?
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Re: Gray's Elegy - stanzas 8-11



MacIan wrote:
To jump in, (and add to that) these stanzas emphasize that, regardless of rank, power, wealth or beauty, we will all die. Death as the great equalizer? Maybe this takes it a bit further than Gray intends.

What I find very interesting about these stanzas is Gray's treatment of the "well-to-do"--he does not seem to be scolding them, just musing over his own observations while strolling through this grave yard. I;m wondering if you all get the same feeling, or do you read this as subtle criticism of the affluent?


I agree MacIan, I don't necessarily see this as a criticism of the well-to-do, but as a reminder to not overlook the contributions and lives of those less known.
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Re: Gray's Elegy - stanzas 8-11



MacIan wrote:
>What I find very interesting about these stanzas is Gray's treatment of the "well-to-do"--he does not seem to be scolding them, just musing over his own observations while strolling through this grave yard. I;m wondering if you all get the same feeling, or do you read this as subtle criticism of the affluent?

My feeling is that he isn't criticizing them simply because they're wealthy or powerful, but is criticizing those who think that their wealth or power make them better or more valuable than the unlettered rustic.
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Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

We turn now to what I think is the meat of the poem. Having made clear that the paths of the poor and humble and those of the rich and powerful both lead in the end to the same place, and that glorious funeral rites in a magnificent cathedral are of no more use to the dead than a simple respectful burial in a country church, Gray now goes on to note that the poor and humble may be that only because they lacked the chances to be rich and powerful, or perhaps because they preferred the quiet life of the country rustic.

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.


Who knows what unrecognized talents may lie in these graves we see before us? Given different circumstances, might an unknown Wesley lie here? A Caesar, a Mozart?

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.


(Penury: extreme poverty)

In Gray’s age there was no free public education, no free public libraries, very limited opportunity (if any) for the child of a sheepherder or cottage farmer to learn to read, let alone have access to the range of books and other opportunities that would enable one to develop their natural talents. Extreme poverty condemned them to live hand to mouth, day to day, and froze out any opportunity they might have had to elevate themselves to higher rank or social prominence.

(Note the capital K of Knowledge and P of Penury These are almost living forces in the lives of the powerful and the humble.)

And in what I think is one of the loveliest sets of images in poetry:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.


What a wonderful way of putting this thought.

Given the opportunities, given the chance to unroll the ample page of Knowledge, what might these humble rustics have become?

Some village Hampden that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.


(The grammar of this stanza is a bit complex. "here may rest" modifies Hampden, Milton, and Cromwell, so the meaning is "some village Hampden may lie here, in this graveyard; so may some mute, inglorious Milton or some Cromwell who never shed his fellow countrymens' blood.)

John Hampden was a champion of the rights of Parliament against the tyranny of King James I. You can read about him (at least as his admirers view him) here
http://www.johnhampden.org/

As Hampden stood up to the tyranny of the throne, so perhaps some unknown rural lying under one of these grassy mounds may have stood up to an injustice in his village, perhaps a greedy squire who sought to deny him his grazing rights.

Milton you know: mute inglorious, of course, means that the Milton who lies in the graveyard, being unlettered, was as far as posterity is concerned, mute, and denied the glory which he or she might have enjoyed had they had Milton’s educational opportunities.

And Cromwell you know.

The next stanzas continue this general train of thought, but I’ll get to them in a day or two.
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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

Where is everyone? Would like to join in.
Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. --Oscar Wilde

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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

[ Edited ]

foxycat wrote:
Where is everyone? Would like to join in.

Nobody seemed interested, so I moved on to other topics. Guess poetry just doesn't get most people, other than you and me, excited these days.

Message Edited by Everyman on 06-23-2007 05:07 PM
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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

Too bad. I just found the Elegy in my library to read again. You had 4 people 2 weeks ago. I know YOU'RE on a number of boards, but how do you you they lost interest?
Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. --Oscar Wilde

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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

Basically, people seemed to stop posting. If people are interested enough to make some substantive comments, I'll be glad to keep things going.
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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

Hi Everyman,

I'm new to this and hope I'm not too late to join in. Gray's elegy has interested and baffled me over some time now. Whenever I attempt to work out the logical structure of the poem I fail to work out the ending. What may be the purpose of Gray in this poem? Is he trying to work out a solution for his own confusions and insecurities? At the end when Gray resorts to an epitaph he seems to be falling prey to the same situation that he has attempted to transcend throughout in the poem. Does this mean that the elegy gives us no concrete consolation? Or am I missing its logic somewhere? You seem to be doing a great job developing the poem's structure sectionally and I am really interested to see how you may develpo it further. I start by posing my question and if you resume the discussion I will follow up with any pertinent observations that I may come up with.
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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

Hi Everyman
I know it's more than a year since you discontinued your discussion of Gray's Elegy, but I've just found it recently (via a Google search) after starting to re-read this beautiful poem, and I was very disappointed when I found that you had stopped your discussion, because it really was very insightful and illuminating. And from what I gathered from other messages, there were a few other people who felt much as I do.
Wouldn't you please consider continuing your discussion of the poem? I'm sure it wouldn't be long before the other interested people (and no doubt some new ones) start popping up to follow the discussion. 
Hoping to hear from you.
Regards,
Errol
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Everyman
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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

I'm delighted that you found and enjoyed the postings I made some time back. I'll seriously consider continuing the discussion if more people are interested in it -- which then can show by discussing some of the posts I made, which weren't intended to be professorial but were intended to stimulate discussion which never happened!
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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

Hi Everyman
 
Thanks for your accommodating reply. Well, people, there's an offer we can't refuse, as they say. Who's up for continuing the discussion of Gray's "Elegy"? It's a beautiful poem, as everyone knows, and everyone likes it, and we have a most skilled leader sitting right on the doorstep, so to speak, waiting for us.
 
Hoping to see lots of responses! Hold your hat Everyman, here we come ...
 
Regards,
 
Errol
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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

[ Edited ]
OH YES -- please continue the explication, Everyman!!
 
I was never privy to such interpretation in high school and now these 30 years later I so enjoyed reading your posts (albeit a year too late).  I would love to hear what other insights you have for this glorious poem.
 
Most sincerely,
Molly


Message Edited by Mstermind1 on 06-02-2008 05:01 PM
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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

There does seem to be some interest in my continuing my interrupted discussion of this poem, so I'll go on. But with the expectation that this is a discussion, not a lecture, so add your own insights, which may well be different from mine, and we'll get an even richer understanding and appreciation of this great work.
If you want to bring the poem up in a parallel window to look at while you read, it can be found here.

I ended (just about a year ago!) with the wonderful stanza:

Some village Hampden that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.


Gray goes on in three stanzas that represent a continuum, so need to be quoted together:

Th' applause of list'ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone
Their glowing virtues, but their crimes confined;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse's flame.


Again, his grammar needs some unpacking. The predicate of the first stanza doesn’t come until the start of the second stanza. While I adore his poetic grammar and language, and freely admit that translating it is to some extent a travesty, it may help those who aren’t all that used to reading 18th Century poetry.

Start with the first stanza quoted above (discussed in my June 10, 2007 post), where he is talking about rustics (country folk) who, if they had had the chance, might have been citizen heroes (Hampden), great poets (Milton), or great political leaders (Cromwell). Take a second to contemplate why he picks these particular areas of national adulation to bring to the forefront. Heroism, literature and the arts, politics.

So. The stanza starting “Th’ applause...” can be unpacked this way, starting with its grammatical start, “Their lot forbade...

The lot of these people (being born rustics and never having the opportunities of education, birth, or wealth) prevented them from speaking before great throngs of the powerful [England didn’t have a senate; the term is Roman, and refers here to any great political gathering] and hearing the applause of the multitudes cheering their statesmanlike erudition. Their lot also forbade (prevented) them from forging ahead and ignoring any threats of pain and ruin. (Kipling’s “If” comes to mind.) Furthermore, their lot also prevented them from scattering good things across the land like a great Lord scattering alms to the needy, and from reading their history in the adoring eyes of the multitudes. Had they been born with the same opportunities Hampden, Milton, Cromwell, et. al. had, they might have enjoyed these rewards of power and prestige. But born as they were mere rustics, they never had a chance to be great and be respected and adored by the vast public.

But, he goes on, just as their humble lot prevented them from becoming great heros, literary figures, or politicians, it also prevented them from committing great evils. Their lot not only circumscribed (prevented) their glowing virtues; it confined (limited) their crimes. They did not have the chance to gain a throne by wading through great slaughter, as many kings of England and Europe had done. They were prevented from “shutting the gates of mercy on mankind.”

The next stanza is a bit harder to parse. As I read it, he is still going on as to what wrongs their lot prevented them from committing. They did not have the chance to exert power to crush the struggling pangs of conscious truth. Recall that indeed in his recent history the powers both of government and the church did act to quash budding truths. Not only from science – Galileo and Copernicus, for example – but also religious truths (the fervor of the Protestant revolutionaries, many of whom were accused of heresy and imprisoned or hanged) and political challenges (Milton had been imprisoned for his political writings, as had been many others; the unrest in the American colonies hadn’t broken out into war at the time the poem was written, but unrest was in the air, fueled by the writings of Locke, Paine, and others). While the powerful forces of government and church, I hear him saying, were trying to keep these struggling pangs of conscious truth from emerging, his rustics had no part in this evil.

Similarly, they had no role in quenching blushes if ingenuous shame. The rich and powerful had no true shame; they hid the blushes that would have shown on the faces of more honest folk – see how relevant the poem is even today when you consider some of our most prominent politicians who should be blushing with shame but aren’t. Rustic folks know when they’re acting in a shameful manner, and don’t hide their blushes.

The last two lines of that stanza are less clear to me, but I think he’s referring to the muse of poetry, and to dishonest poets who don’t write true poetry, but write sycophantic poetry (many poets at the time were supported by wealthy patrons, and had to write poetry which would be approved of and/or fulsomely praise their patrons) which would falsely heap up both their own luxury and their patron’s pride. But if anybody has a better interpretation of these lines, I would be glad to hear it!

That’s enough for today. Comments?
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ecollen
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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

Hi Everyman

Many thanks for deciding to continue with your discussion. It’s extremely enlightening. Thanks for your reply too, Molly. As I said before, I’m sure there are many silent listeners too, Everyman.

And I can understand why some people may not want to risk too many opinions so publicly. We’re always wanting not to make ourselves look too stupid! Well, I am anyway. But just to assure you I’m following everything, Everyman, let me risk a few comments.

I don’t know if many other people are like this, but though I’ve studied this poem and many of the other well-known ones too (which is why I hope we’ll be able to twist your arm to continue talking about some other great poems later, Everyman, when we finally get to the end of Elegy) repeatedly at both school and university level, I somehow have the weakness of being hypnotised by the language. Sometimes when I sit back and ask myself exactly what the poet is saying, I can’t really answer, though the words are very familiar. (I once made the surprising discovery that I was able to recite the entire Elegy from memory when I was on a particularly boring car journey – but that was long time ago, and it was a long journey.)

These three stanzas work wonderfully. I was amused to notice recently on an Internet site they had a copy of the Elegy with a full stop after “And read their history in a nation’s eyes”. Pity the poor people who couldn’t follow the syntax there! The same place, incidentally, thought fit to change “ingenuous” to “ingenious”. Always worth checking up on some of these sites.

What I find most interesting about these three stanzas is that Gray included the possibility of the crimes of these poor underprivileged people being restricted too. Very realistic to think that if they had had better opportunities they may have abused them too.

Your interpretation of the last of the three stanzas is very helpful. I’ve always battled to try to understand just what he’s getting at. I’m sure it’s quite right that syntactically it’s a continuation of the previous idea. And I’m sure you’re spot on with the meaning, especially with the first two lines: “The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide, / To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame”. That sounds exactly right. I’ve never been able to work that out.

The last two lines are quite a puzzle, you’re right. I’ve always thought of “heaping the shrine of Luxury and Pride” as meaning something like they weren’t in the position to build up large quantities of wealth, but that still doesn’t really explain the last line. I also seem to remember once hearing/reading the idea that “incense kindled at the Muse’s flame” was insincere praise and flattery that they would’ve used to gain favours for themselves, that is “heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride”, but I must admit it doesn’t sound very convincing. True it resembles your idea, but I think your full explanation of poets writing to please their patrons sounds entirely convincing.

Sorry, I haven’t contributed very much, have I? But thanks very much for your great interpretation.

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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

Thanks so much for that feedback. I'm glad that some of my commentary was helpful to you. I'll be interested in your comments on some stanzas later on which give me some more trouble.

I agree about the problems of some web sites making errors in transcribing works, which is particularly problematic when one is talking about such a carefully crafted poem as this. The Quiller-Couch edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse (long out of print but widely available in second hand editions) is about as good as any I've found, and I find that the Bartleby on-line copy, which I provided the link to above, is usually quite accurate.

ecollen wrote:

Hi Everyman

Many thanks for deciding to continue with your discussion. It’s extremely enlightening. Thanks for your reply too, Molly. As I said before, I’m sure there are many silent listeners too, Everyman.

And I can understand why some people may not want to risk too many opinions so publicly. We’re always wanting not to make ourselves look too stupid! Well, I am anyway. But just to assure you I’m following everything, Everyman, let me risk a few comments.

I don’t know if many other people are like this, but though I’ve studied this poem and many of the other well-known ones too (which is why I hope we’ll be able to twist your arm to continue talking about some other great poems later, Everyman, when we finally get to the end of Elegy) repeatedly at both school and university level, I somehow have the weakness of being hypnotised by the language. Sometimes when I sit back and ask myself exactly what the poet is saying, I can’t really answer, though the words are very familiar. (I once made the surprising discovery that I was able to recite the entire Elegy from memory when I was on a particularly boring car journey – but that was long time ago, and it was a long journey.)

These three stanzas work wonderfully. I was amused to notice recently on an Internet site they had a copy of the Elegy with a full stop after “And read their history in a nation’s eyes”. Pity the poor people who couldn’t follow the syntax there! The same place, incidentally, thought fit to change “ingenuous” to “ingenious”. Always worth checking up on some of these sites.

What I find most interesting about these three stanzas is that Gray included the possibility of the crimes of these poor underprivileged people being restricted too. Very realistic to think that if they had had better opportunities they may have abused them too.

Your interpretation of the last of the three stanzas is very helpful. I’ve always battled to try to understand just what he’s getting at. I’m sure it’s quite right that syntactically it’s a continuation of the previous idea. And I’m sure you’re spot on with the meaning, especially with the first two lines: “The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide, / To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame”. That sounds exactly right. I’ve never been able to work that out.

The last two lines are quite a puzzle, you’re right. I’ve always thought of “heaping the shrine of Luxury and Pride” as meaning something like they weren’t in the position to build up large quantities of wealth, but that still doesn’t really explain the last line. I also seem to remember once hearing/reading the idea that “incense kindled at the Muse’s flame” was insincere praise and flattery that they would’ve used to gain favours for themselves, that is “heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride”, but I must admit it doesn’t sound very convincing. True it resembles your idea, but I think your full explanation of poets writing to please their patrons sounds entirely convincing.

Sorry, I haven’t contributed very much, have I? But thanks very much for your great interpretation.




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ecollen
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Re: Gray's Elegy Discussion continued

Hi Everyman

Thanks for your note. I’m looking forward to your further discussions of the rest of the Elegy in due course, and, yes, I will certainly comment, though I can’t really think that I will be able to add anything much.

I suppose it’s not so unexpected that there are a few textual variants of the poem, and I also suppose that it’s not really serious, provided, of course, that they aren’t big differences. A slight change of punctuation here and there or an occasional change in spelling shouldn’t matter. But when it gets to things like “ingenious” instead of “ingenuous” and separating the object from its verb by a full stop, well that’s bad. I imagine that one way something like that could happen is if the poem is scanned and then not checked properly.

I actually have Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse with the copy of the Elegy – as well as possibly a half a dozen or a dozen more books with it in! You know how people like to put it in anthologies. But the version that I’ve been using, because I thought it may possibly be the most accurate of all, is the one in the OUP’s Poems of Gray and Collins. I haven’t checked all the different ones in detail, but the OUP one seems pretty close to Quiller-Couch’s, so I reckon that’s fine.

This is also the version, by the way, that I’m using in my own home-made “anthology”! You’ll think I don’t have enough to keep myself occupied (which would be wrong, I do), but one of my little “projects” at the moment is to collect copies of my favourite poems (easy nowadays with the Internet and computers), and when I’ve got a nice big lot I’ll have them printed and put together in a little home-made book, so that I’ve got all the nice ones together in one lot for reading. It’s a long process though, because before I put them in the book, I try to go through them properly and make sure I still know them.

Best wishes,

Errol

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