01 March 2012
Death as his Muse: An Analysis on Thomas Gray’s
‘An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’
The idea of death has always been an infamous concept. It has fascinated a lot of scholars, scientists, and artists alike, producing thousands of different theories and ideas trying to answer the mystery that surrounds such final and daunting thought. Death slowly crept up to the living and successfully immortalized itself in the form of ink on paper. As the field of literature ironically gave life to such pieces concerning death, one literary piece stood out because of its distinct qualities. Thomas Gray’s An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard ...view middle of the document...
Its phrasing is both elegant and memorable, as is evident from the incorporation of much of it.” (66)
The Elegy used to have other versions – Gray chose to revise them, and ended up with the final work with the added Epitaph in the end, with no thoughts of having it published at all. However, during this time, Gray has already sent Walpole (having reconciled with him) a copy of the poem, and the latter showed it to his friends and copies quickly multiplied until it reached its fame today (Ketton-Cremer 102.)
A Song for the Unknown
An elegy is defined as ‘a mournful poem, especially of lament for the dead,’ and is usually written by a beloved in memory of the dead person. However, Gray’s Elegy does not follow these conventions as the persona in his poem laments the passing of unknown villagers of the countryside whose deaths are relatively ignored compared to the deaths of the rich or famous people, most likely the ones from the cities.
Gray establishes a very melancholic scene in his poem – it starts on sundown, when the darkness slowly consumes the skies, and nocturnal animals wake up as the people settle down in their homes to rest. From here, the persona ponders on death, and as he looks around from where he is, he laments the death of the villagers – people who are practically unknown to him. Gray’s compassion for the poor shows in the poem, as he contemplates on how these people could have been as great as the famous people during that time, and compares them to gems buried under the sea or flowers blooming in a desert. The persona states that death is a final and inevitable thing which will come to all of us:
“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?”
From here, Gray constructs a fine line on the idea of death by the rich and the poor. One’s aristocratic background or power will not stop him or her from dying, and neither will elaborate funerals or expensive urns will bring a person back to life. The persona defends that the poor, should not be mocked even if their lives were simple and monotonous. Like most of his contemporaries, Gray believed in the basic equality of all people at birth (Golden 33) and as one reaches his or her final breath, he tells us that we will come to terms that all of us will end up dead and eventually turn into ashes.
The Elegy mourns for the unknown, for every other person whose death is not considered as important as the deaths of icons, scholars, leaders, or scientists. The melancholy tone and the compassion for the poor exuded in the poem cannot be helped but to be related to Gray’s personal life.
A Common Man
Gray is considered to be a part of a mid 18th century group of poets now commonly known as the Graveyard School. Their name is derived from their melancholy reflections on man’s fate (Golden 68.) However, the Elegy transcends from the usual Graveyard Poetry as...