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.
Years of Composition and Publication
.......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.
.......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,
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,
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)
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.
is a noun referring to flocks of sheep. (8) Tinklings: onomatopoeia.
9. Save that from yonder
(2) Yonder: distant; remote. (3) Ivy-mantled: cloaked, dressed,
or adorned with ivy. (4) Moping: gloomy; grumbling. (5)
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,
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) Hamlet: village.
17. The breezy call of incense-breathing
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)
songbird that likes to perch. (3) Clarion: cock-a-doodle-doo. (4)
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,
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,
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,
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 joys).
33. The boast of heraldry,
the pomp of pow'r,
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,
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
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
45. Perhaps in this neglected
spot is laid
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
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
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
65. Their lot forbade: nor
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,
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)
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
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 stanza.
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)
fancies: unpredictable, unexpected, or unwanted thoughts; capricious
or flighty thoughts. (3) Rove: wander. (4) Craz'd . . . cross'd:
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 heaven.
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.
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
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