By Thomas Gray (1716-1771)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised and Enlarged in 2009, 2010.©
......."Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is—as the title indicates—an elegy. Such a poem centers on the death of a person or persons and is, therefore, somber in tone. An elegy is lyrical rather than narrative—that is, its primary purpose is to express feelings and insights about its subject rather than to tell a story. Typically, an elegy expresses feelings of loss and sorrow while also praising the deceased and commenting on the meaning of the deceased's time on earth. Gray's poem reflects on the lives of humble and unheralded people buried in the cemetery of a church.
.......The time is the mid 1700s, about a decade before the Industrial Revolution began in England. The place is the cemetery of a church. Evidence indicates that the church is St. Giles, in the small town of Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, in southern England. Gray himself is buried in that cemetery. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, once maintained a manor house at Stoge Poges.
.......Gray began writing the elegy in 1742, put it aside for a while, and finished it in 1750. Robert Dodsley published the poem in London in 1751. Revised or altered versions of the poem appeared in 1753, 1758, 1768, and 1775. Copies of the various versions are on file in the Thomas Gray Archive at Oxford University.Meter and Rhyme Scheme
.......Gray wrote the poem in four-line stanzas (quatrains). Each line is in iambic pentameter, meaning the following:
1..Each line has five pairs of syllables for a total of ten syllables........In each stanza, the first line rhymes with the third and the second line rhymes with the fourth (abab), as follows:
a.....The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,Stanza Form: Heroic Quatrain
.......A stanza with the above-mentioned characteristics—four lines, iambic pentameter, and an abab rhyme scheme—is often referred to as a heroic quatrain. (Quatrain is derived from the Latin word quattuor, meaning four.) William Shakespeare and John Dryden had earlier used this stanza form. After Gray's poem became famous, writers and critics also began referring to the heroic quatrain as an elegiac stanza...
Complete Poem With Explanatory Notes
Compiled by Michael J. Cummings © 2003, 2009, 2010
1. The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
(1) Curfew: ringing bell in the evening that reminded people in English towns of Gray’s time to put out fires and go to bed. (2) Knell: mournful sound. (3) Parting day: day's end; dying day; twilight; dusk. (4) Lowing: mooing. (5) O'er: contraction for over. (6) Lea: meadow.
5. Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight,
(1) Line 5: The landscape becomes less and less visible. (2) Sight . . . solemn stillness . . . save: alliteration. (3) Save: except. (4) Beetle: winged insect that occurs in more than 350,000 varieties. One type is the firefly, or lightning bug. (5) Wheels: verb meaning flies in circles. (6) Droning:
humming; buzzing; monotonous sound. (7) Drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds: This clause apparently refers to the gentle sounds made by a bell around the neck of a castrated male sheep that leads other sheep. A castrated male sheep is called a wether. Such a sheep with a bell around its neck is called a bellwether. Folds is a noun referring to flocks of sheep. (8)
9. Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r
(1) Save: except. (2) Yonder: distant; remote. (3) Ivy-mantled: cloaked, dressed, or adorned with ivy. (4) Moping: gloomy; grumbling. (5) Of such: of anything or anybody. (6) Bow'r: bower, an enclosure surrounded by plant growth—in this case, ivy. (7) Molest her ancient solitary reign: bother the owl
while it keeps watch over the churchyard and countryside. (8) Her ancient solitary rein: metaphor comparing the owl to a queen.
13. Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
(1) Where heaves the turf: anastrophe, a figure of speech that inverts the normal word order (the turf heaves). (2) Mould'ring: mouldering (British), moldering (American), an adjective meaning decaying, crumbling. (3) Cell: metaphor comparing a grave to a prison cell. (4) Rude: robust; sturdy; hearty; stalwart. (4)
17. The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
(1) Breezy call of incense-breathing Morn: wind carrying the pleasant smells of morning, including dewy grass and flowers. Notice that Morn is a metaphor comparing it to a living creature. (It calls and breathes.) (2) Swallow: Insect-eating songbird that likes to perch. (3) Clarion: cock-a-doodle-doo. (4) Echoing
horn: The words may refer to the sound made by a fox huntsman who blows a copper horn to which pack hounds respond.
21. For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
(1) hearth . . . housewife . . . her: alliteration. (2) Climb his knees the envied kiss to share: anastrophe, a figure of speech that inverts the normal word order (to share the envied kiss).
25. Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
(1) Sickle: Harvesting tool with a handle and a crescent-shaped blade. Field hands swing it from right to left to cut down plant growth. (2) Furrow: channel or groove made by a plow for planting seeds. (3) Glebe: earth. (4) Jocund: To maintain the meter, Gray uses an adjective when the syntax call for an adverb,
jocundly. Jocund (pronounced JAHK und) means cheerful.
29. Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
(1) Ambition: Personification referring to the desire to succeed or to ambitious people seeking lofty goals. (2) Destiny obscure: the humble fate of the common people; their unheralded deeds. (3) Lines 29-30: anastrophe, a figure of speech that inverts the normal word order (let not Ambition obscure their destiny and homely
33. The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
(1) Boast of heraldry: Proud talk about the aristocratic or noble roots of one's family; snobbery. Heraldry was a science that traced family lines of royal and noble personages and designed coats of arms for them. (2) Pomp: ceremonies, rituals, and splendid surroundings of nobles and royals. (3) Pomp of pow'r: alliteration. (4) E'er:
ever. General meaning of stanza: Every person—no matter how important, powerful, or wealthy—ends up the same, dead.
37. Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
(1) Impute: Assign, ascribe. (2) Mem'ry: Memory, a personification referring to memorials, commemorations, and tributes—including statues, headstones, and epitaphs—used to preserve the memory of important or privileged people. (3) Where thro' . . . the note of praise: Reference to the interior of a church housing the tombs of
important people. Fretted vault refers to a carved or ornamented arched roof or ceiling. (4) Pealing anthem may refer to lofty organ music.
41. Can storied urn or animated bust
(1) Storied urn: Vase adorned with pictures telling a story. Urns have sometimes been used to hold the ashes of a cremated body. (2) Bust: sculpture of the head, shoulders, and chest of a human. (3) Storied urn . . . breath? Can the soul (fleeting breath) be called back to the body (mansion) by the urn or bust back?
Notice that urn and bust are personifications that call. (4) Can Honour's . . . Death? Can honor (Honour's voice) attributed to the dead person cause that person (silent dust) to come back to life? Can flattering words (Flatt'ry) about the dead person make death more "bearable"? (5) General meaning of stanza: Lines 41-45 continue the idea begun in Lines 37-40.
In other words, can any memorials—such as the trophies mentioned in Line 38, the urn and bust mentioned in Line 41, and personifications (honor and flattery) mentioned in Lines 43 and 44—bring a person back to life or make death less final or fearsome?
45. Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
(1) Pregnant with celestial fire: Full of great ideas, abilities, or goals (celestial fire). (2) Rod of empire: scepter held by a king or an emperor during ceremonies. One of the humble country folk in the cemetery might have become a king or an emperor if he had been given the opportunity. (3) Wak'd . . .lyre: Played
beautiful music on a lyre, a stringed instrument. In other words, one of the people in the cemetery could have become a great musician if given the opportunity, "waking up" the notes of the lyre.
49. But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
(1) Knowledge . . . unroll: Knowledge did not reveal itself to them (their eyes) in books (ample page) rich with treasures of information (spoils of time). (2) Knowledge . . . unroll: Personification and anastrophe a figure of speech that inverts the normal word order (knowledge did ne'er enroll). (3) Chill . . .
soul: Poverty (penury) repressed their enthusiasm (rage) and froze the flow (current) of ideas (soul).
53. Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
Full . . . air: These may be the most famous lines in the poem. Gray is comparing the humble village people to undiscovered gems in caves at the bottom of the ocean and to undiscovered flowers in the desert.
57. Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
(1) John Hampden (1594-1643). Hampden, a Puritan member of Parliament, frequently criticized and opposed the policies of King Charles I. In particular, he opposed a tax imposed by the king to outfit the British navy. Because he believed that only Parliament could impose taxes, he refused to pay 20 shillings in ship money in 1635. Many joined him in
his opposition. War broke out between those who supported Parliament and those who supported the king. Hampden was killed in battle in 1643. Gray here is presenting Hampden as a courageous (dauntless) hero who stood against the king (little tyrant). (2) Milton: John Milton (1608-1674), the great English poet and scholar.
61. Th' applause of list'ning senates to command,
The subject and verb of Lines 61-64 are in the first three words of Line 65, their lot forbade. Thus, this stanza says the villagers' way of life (lot) prohibited or prevented them from receiving applause from politicians for good deeds such as alleviating pain and suffering and providing plenty (perhaps food) across the land.
These deeds would have been recorded by the appreciating nation.
65. Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib'd alone
General meaning: Their lot in life not only prevented (circumbscrib'd) them from doing good deeds (like those mentioned in Stanza 16) but also prevented (confin'd) bad deeds such as killing enemies to gain the throne and refusing to show mercy to people.
69. The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
(1) General meaning: This stanza continues the idea begun in the previous stanza, saying that the villagers' lot in life also prevented them from hiding truth and shame and from bragging or using pretty or flattering words (incense kindled at the Muse's flame) to gain luxuries and feed their pride. (2) Muse's flame: an allusion
to sister goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology who inspired writers, musicians, historians, dancers, and astronomers. These goddesses were called Muses.
73. Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
(1) General meaning: The villagers plodded on faithfully, never straying from their lot in life as common people. (2) Madding: maddening; furious; frenzied. (3) Noiseless tenor of their way: quiet way of life.
77. Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect,
General meaning: But even these people have gravestones (frail memorial), although they are engraved with simple and uneducated words or decked with humble sculpture. These gravestones elicit a sigh from people who see them.
81. Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse,
(1)Their . . . supply: Their name and age appear but there are no lofty tributes. (2) Unletter'd muse: Uneducated writer or engraver. (2) Holy text: probably Bible quotations. (3) She: muse. See the second note for Stanza 18. (4) Rustic moralist: pious villager.
85. For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
General meaning: These humble people, though they were doomed to be forgotten (to dumb Forgetfulness a prey), did not die (did not leave the warm precincts of cheerful day) without looking back with regret and perhaps a desire to linger a little longer .
89. On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
General meaning: The dying person (parting soul) relies on a friend (fond breast) to supply the engraved words (pious drops) on a tombstone. Even from the tomb the spirit of a person cries out for remembrance.
93. For thee , who mindful of th' unhonour'd Dead
(1) For thee . . . relate: Gray appears to be referring to himself. Mindful that the villagers deserve some sort of memorial, he is telling their story (their artless tale) in this elegy (these lines). (2) Lines 95-96: But what about Gray himself? What if someone asks about his fate? Gray provides the answer in the next
97. Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
(1) Haply: Perhaps; by chance; by accident. (2) Hoary-headed swain: Gray-haired country fellow; old man who lives in the region.
101. "There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
(1) Nodding: bending; bowing. (2) Listless length: his tired body. (3) Pore upon: Look at; watch.
105. "Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
(1) Wood, now smiling as in scorn: personification comparing the forest to a person. (2) Wayward fancies: unpredictable, unexpected, or unwanted thoughts; capricious or flighty thoughts. (3) Rove: wander. (4) Craz'd . . . cross'd: alliteration.
109. "One morn I miss'd him on the custom'd hill,
(1) Another came: another morning came. (2) Nor yet: But he still was not. (3) Rill: small stream or brook.
113. "The next with dirges due in sad array
(1) The next: the next morning. (2) Dirges: funeral songs. (3) Lay: short poem—in this case, the epitaph below.
117. Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
125. No farther seek his merits to disclose,
General meaning: Here lies a man of humble birth who did not know fortune or fame but who did become a scholar. Although he was depressed at times, he had a good life, was sensitive to the needs of others, and followed God's laws. Don't try to find out more about his good points or bad points, which are now with him in
Death: the Great Equalizer
.......Even the proud and the mighty must one day lie beneath the earth, like the humble men and women now buried in the churchyard, as line 36 notes: The paths of glory lead but to the grave. Lines 41-44 further point out that no grandiose memorials and no flattering words about the deceased can bring him or her back from death.
Can storied urn or animated bustMissed Opportunities
.......Because of poverty or other handicaps, many talented people never receive the opportunities they deserve. The following lines elucidate this theme through metaphors:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,Here, the gem at the bottom of the ocean may represent an undiscovered musician, poet, scientist or philosopher. The flower may likewise stand for a person of great and noble qualities that are "wasted on the desert air." Of course, on another level, the gem and the flower can stand for anything in life that goes unappreciated.
.......In their rural setting, far from the temptations of the cities and the courts of kings, the villagers led virtuous lives, as lines 73-76 point out:
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,Inversion
.......For poetic effect, Gray frequently uses inversion (reversal of the normal word order). Following are examples:
Line 6: And all the air a solemn stillness holds (all the air holds a solemn stillness)
Gray also frequently uses a commonplace poetic device known as syncope, the omission of letters or sounds within a word.
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea (line 2)
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem.
The plowman homeward plods his weary way (line 3)Anaphora
Repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave (line 34)Metaphor
Comparison between unlike things without using like, as, or than
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,Metonymy
Use of a word or phrase to suggest a related word or phrase
To scatter plenty o'er a smiling landPersonification
A form of metaphor that compares a thing to a person
Let not Ambition mock their useful toilAssessment of the Poem
.......Scholars regard "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" as one of the greatest poems in the English language. It weaves structure, rhyme scheme, imagery and message into a brilliant tapestry that confers on Gray everlasting fame. The quality of its poetry and insights reach Shakespearean and Miltonian heights.
.......Thomas Gray was born in London on December 26, 1716. He was the only one of twelve children who survived into adulthood. His father, Philip, a scrivener (a person who copies text) was a cruel, violent man, but his mother, Dorothy, believed in her son and operated a millinery business to educate him at Eton school
in his childhood and Peterhouse College, Cambridge, as a young man.