Thomas Gray

Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard

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Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard Summary

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Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a Restoration Period poem by Thomas Gray. An elegy, by strict definition, is usually a lament for the dead. Gray’s version of an elegy is slightly different—he writes about the inevitability and hollowness of death in general, instead of mourning one person. At first, the poem reflects on death in a mostly detached way, as someone who is resigned to death’s outcome. Yet, the epitaph he writes for himself at the end of the poem, reflects a fear of death. Elegy is a renowned English poem, regarded as one of the best of the time, and arguably of all time. It was popular when it was first written and was reprinted many times.

The speaker begins the poem by saying he is in a churchyard with a bell tolling for the end of the day, he uses this image as a metaphor for life and death. He describes the scenery around him, speaking of the sun setting, the church tower covered in ivy, and an owl hooting. He then focuses on the graveyard around him. He speaks of the men who are in the graves and how they were probably simple village folk. They’re dead and nothing will wake these villagers, not a rooster’s call in the morning, not twittering birds, and not the smell of the morning breeze. The speaker also laments that life’s pleasures will no longer be felt by those buried in the graveyard, especially emphasizing the joys of family life.

The dead villagers probably were farmers, and the speaker discusses how they probably enjoyed farming. He warns that although it sounds like a simple life, no one should mock a good honest working life as these men once had. No one should mock these men because in death, these arbitrary ideas of being wealthy or high-born do not matter. Fancy grave markers will not bring someone back to life, and neither will the honor of being well born.

The speaker then wonders about those in the graveyard who are buried in unmarked graves. He wonders if they were full of passion, or if they were potential world leaders who left the world too soon. He wonders if one was a beautiful lyre player, whose music could bring the lyre to life—literally. He laments for the poor villagers, as they were never able to learn much about the world. He uses metaphors to describe their lack of education, that knowledge as a book was never open to them, and that poverty froze their souls.

He speaks of those in the graveyard as unsung heroes, comparing them to gems that are never found, or flowers that bloom and are never seen. He wonders if some of the residents of the graveyard could have been historically relevant, but unable to shine. One could have been a mute Milton, the author of Paradise Lost; or one could have been like John Hampden, a politician who openly opposed the policies of King Charles. Alas, the speaker mourns again that these villagers were poor and unable to make their mark on the world.

But because they were poor, they were also innocent. They were not capable of regicide or being merciless. They were also incapable of hiding the truth, meaning they were honest with the world. The speaker notes that these people, because they were poor, will not even be remembered negatively. They lived far from cities and lived in the quiet. At least their graves are protected by simple grave markers, so people do not desecrate their burial places by accident. And the graves have enough meaning to the speaker that he will stop and reflect on their lives. The speaker wonders who leaves earth in death without wondering what they are leaving behind. Even the poor leave behind loved ones, and they need someone in their life who is pious to close their eyes upon death.

The speaker begins to wonder about himself in relation to these graveyard inhabitants. Even if these deceased villagers were poor, at least the speaker is elegizing them now. The speaker wonders who will elegize him. Maybe it will be someone like him, a kindred spirit, who wandered into the same graveyard. Possibly some grey-haired farmer, who would remark on having seen the speaker rush through the dew covered grass to watch the sun set on the meadow. The speaker continues to think of the imagined farmer, who would remember the speaker luxuriating on the strangely grown roots of a tree, while he watched the babbling brook. Maybe the farmer would think of how the speaker wandered through the woods looking pale with scorn and sorrow. Possibly the speaker was anxious, or was a victim of unrequited love. The speaker wonders if the farmer will notice he’s gone one day, that the farmer did not see him by his favorite tree, near the meadow, or by the woods. He speaks of his own funeral dirges and finally of his own epitaph.

In the speaker’s own epitaph, he remarks that he has died, unknown to both fame and fortune, as in he never became famous and was not well-born. But at least he was full of knowledge—he was a scholar and a poet. Yet oftentimes, the speaker could become depressed. But he was bighearted and sincere, so heaven paid him back for his good qualities by giving him a friend. His other good and bad qualities do not matter anymore, so he instructs people not to go looking for them since he hopes for a good life in heaven with God.