Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard’ was a poem of uncommon power on grief and the afterlife.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
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 Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
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 applause of listening 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 growing 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.
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Yet even these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
Their name, their years, spelt by the unlettered muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.
For thee, who mindful of the unhonoured dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,
Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
“Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.
“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.
“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless love.
“One morn I missed him on the customed hill,
Along the heath and near his favourite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;
“The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou can’st read) the lay,
Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”
Here rests his head upon the lap of earth
A youth to fortune and to fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy marked him for her own.
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven (’twas all he wished) a friend.
No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.
Meditation on Mortality — John J. Miller
Mr. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College and national correspondent for National Review. This essay was featured in the WSJ recently.
Shortly afterAbraham Lincoln secured the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, a reporter traveled to Springfield, Ill., to learn about the candidate’s background. In an interview, Lincoln said his early life could be condensed into a single phrase: “the short and simple annals of the poor.”
The words didn’t belong to Lincoln, but rather to the 18th-century English poet Thomas Gray, and they came from “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard.” Lincoln almost certainly had encountered Gray’s “Elegy” as a boy, possibly by one of those hearth fires in his family’s log cabin.
There was a time when most educated people would have recognized Lincoln’s reference: “Gray’s Elegy,” wrote Leslie Stephen (the father of Virginia Woolf), “includes more familiar phrases than any poem of equal length in the language.” Its 32 stanzas burst with celebrated passages: “The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day”; “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen”; “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”; and so on. Robert L. Mack, Gray’s definitive biographer, has observed that a recent edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations draws from 15 stanzas and reproduces 13 of them whole.
Gray was born the day after Christmas in 1716. He was one of a dozen children, but only he survived childhood. As a boy, he attended Eton College, and later he would write “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” a poem that is the source of what may be his best-known phrase of all: “where ignorance is bliss / ‘Tis folly to be wise.” Another poem, the amusing “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes,” apparently recounts a true story involving an unfortunate feline owned by Gray’s close friend Horace Walpole, a politician and writer.
For Gray, poems were the product of long, careful and hard work — and he often had trouble finishing what he started. In 1750, however, he sent a complete version of his “Elegy” to Walpole: “You will, I hope, look upon it in light of a thing with an end to it; a merit that most of my writings have wanted.” He appears to have fiddled with the elegy for at least four years and possibly as many as eight.
It begins with a description of a rural cemetery in darkness, turning to the fates of the people who lie six feet below. Do their ranks include “some mute inglorious Milton”? The poem goes on to ponder the pain of grief, the challenge of commemoration and the mystery of what lies beyond this life.
As a meditation on human mortality, its theme is one of the most common in literature. Yet the poem possesses uncommon power. When Walpole received his copy, he seems to have recognized its merits at once. He behaved as a publicist, distributing the poem throughout London. It struck at a popular moment for “graveyard poetry,” which mixed themes of death, gloom and Christian belief, prefiguring the coming Gothic movement. (Walpole, in fact, wrote what is widely regarded as the first Gothic novel, “The Castle of Otranto,” published in 1764.)
Yet Gray’s “Elegy” also rose above the ghetto of a genre, expressing universal ideas in lines that worked their way into collective memory. Samuel Johnson didn’t care for most of Gray’s poetry, but even he confessed an admiration for the elegy, praising its “images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.”
In 1759, on the night before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, British Gen. James Wolfe either recited the poem or listened to it read aloud (accounts vary). “I would rather have been the author of that piece than beat the French tomorrow,” he is reported to have said. Wolfe defeated the French the next day, but he famously perished in the effort, providing a testament to what may be the central truth of Gray’s “Elegy”: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
It might be said that Gray’s path of glory started at a grave — and very possibly one occupied by his aunt, Mary Antrobus. She died as Gray composed the elegy and was entombed in the churchyard of St. Giles, in the village of Stoke Poges, west of London. Gray attended church services there with his mother, and they would have routinely walked by his aunt’s final resting place, in an activity that may have provided Gray with the determination to finish his poem.
Fans of the James Bond movies have caught a glimpse of the churchyard in the opening moments of “For Your Eyes Only.” Bond, played by Roger Moore, lays roses by his wife’s burial plot, in a scene filmed on the grounds that Gray immortalized. It looks a bit different from its appearance in Gray’s life. In 1924, the locals tore down the owl-haunted, “ivy-mantled” tower, fearing its imminent collapse.
Another grave lies there too: the one belonging to Gray himself. “On some fond breast the parting soul relies, / Some pious drops the closing eye requires,” he wrote in the elegy. Yet when he died in 1771, few people attended his funeral. As a lifelong bachelor, he had no wife or children to mourn him, and most of his friends didn’t even know he had passed. Walpole learned of Gray’s death from a newspaper.
His gravesite marker is modest. For a poet, however, Gray left behind the best kind of epitaph — one etched into a literary heritage.