Poetry Project V: “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard”, by Thomas Gray

This is the fifth installment of the occasional poetry series featuring analysis by Bishop Richard Williamson. Other installments can be found under the heading "Poetry Project" on True Restoration. If you are interested in specifically Catholic poetry by a contemporary author, you might consider picking up Fr. Lawrence Smith's We Call Thee Blessed, a collection of Marian sonnets.

Link to the poem (best to print out and read before/during the critique)

In all human life on earth there is no problem to compare with the problem of death. What sense can life make when from everything we learn by living to love, we are inexorably cut off by death? To trivialize the problem of death, I must scorn love or life. If I value love or life, I am bound to ask myself, what is the meaning of death?

Poets are men who respond to life and love, which is why countless poets have written about life and death. One of the most famous of these poems in English is the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by a poet otherwise virtually unknown, Thomas Gray (1716-1771). A churchyard is where people are buried. An elegy is a mournful poem or song, in particular a lament for the dead. Gray in the “Elegy” is standing in a country churchyard, as we are told, that of the village of Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire, England, and he is meditating on the life and death of the humble villagers whose graves surround him.

Composed of 32 four-line verses, the “Elegy” can be divided for purposes of an overview into seven sections: 1-3, setting the scene; 4-7, evoking the dead villagers; 8-11, death common to all men; 12-19, the villagers’ humble lives; 20-23, their desire for life. As for the last two sections, in 24-29 the poet imagines himself dying and being buried amongst them, and in 30-32 he imagines his own epitaph.

In setting the scene, Gray describes the quiet of evening in the country (1,2) as night is descending (3). All around him the dead villagers are resting in their graves (4). No more rising at dawn for them (5), nor joys of family life (6), nor manly work in the fields (7). But let nobody of a higher station in life scorn the lowly villagers’ life or death (8), because death brings all men low (9), despite the noblest of graves or sepulchres (10,11).

In fact these villagers may have led humble lives, but perhaps they had the gifts to be great politicians or poets (12) or scholars, gifts which only their poverty prevented from blossoming (13). Great talent can lie hidden (14), and so buried in these graves may have been the equal of England’s best-known statesmen and writers (15). Fame was not to be theirs (16), nor the notoriety of celebrities known for their cruelty (17) or for their behavior made shameful by lust or pride or flattery (18). The villagers lived quietly, out of the public eye (19).

And yet, as the villagers’ rough and ready graves show, still they longed for some recognition and sympathy (20). The simple epitaphs with quotes from Scripture (21) show how the villagers loved life (22), and did not necessarily find it easy to die (23).

To conclude, Gray brings himself on the scene and imagines himself being buried amidst the villagers (24). In the mouth of a country-lad (25) he puts a portrait of his melancholy self (25-29): rising at dawn to walk in the fields (25), he would by mid-day be lying down under a tree (26), all the while talking to himself as though some heavy sadness or other were pressing down on him (27). One day he was to be seen no more in his favorite haunts (28), and the next day he was being buried in the churchyard (29). His epitaph ran (30-32): here lies a sad young man, undistinguished and unknown (30). Generous and sincere, he honored humble folk and so pleased God (31). Leave him in peace, to the mercy of God (32).

All in all, it is a melancholy poem, truly an elegy. The regular sad tread of the four-line verses with the plod of their alternating rhymes would be monotonous, were it not for the dignity of Gray’s considerations on life and death, and for the felicity of their expression. Several phrases and lines from the “Elegy” have passed into common use in the English language, for instance “to blush unseen”, “mute inglorious Milton”, “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”, and so on. Gray’s vocabulary is rich and his versification is solid. The “Elegy” carries a weight of grief for our human condition, certain to die as we are, and with little prospect for most of us of being remembered or honored after our death.

On the eve of dying in the battle of Abraham Heights to conquer French Canada for the British Empire, England’s General Wolfe said that he would rather have written Gray’s “Elegy” than be the conqueror of Quebec, as he proved on the following day to be. Victory and defeat, life and death, fame and obscurity – what do they all mean? In particular, what meaning does Gray’s “Elegy” give to them?

The “Elegy” dates from 1751, exactly halfway through that 18th century when the Christian Church still had a part to play in Englishmen’s lives, especially in the country, but when especially in the cities rationalism, scientism and industrialism were well on their way to pushing the Christian religion to one side. That is why Gray’s solution to the problem of death is half Christian, half modern.

The Christian solution to death is the certainty of life after death, in Hell if one has led a bad life on earth, in Heaven if one has led a good life. This solution has a place of honor in Gray’s own Epitaph at the end of the poem, but it is lacking in certainty. On the one hand (31) God has rewarded him for being good to poor folk, but on the other hand the “bosom of his Father and his God” is a “dread abode” where one reposes only “in trembling hope” (32). Surely Gray still has some belief in God and in an after-life, but that belief seems hardly to have relieved his melancholy while he lived (25-27), or to have given him a clear confidence for the moment of death (32).

Similarly for the villagers in the body of the poem, on the one hand Scripture is quoted on their tombs and helps them to die (21), but on the other hand they still longed for life at the moment of death so that their religion cannot have given them perfect resignation to their mortal condition (22,23). In other words, for the villagers as for Gray, religion is still there, but its grip is weakening.

And that is why into the gap left by the fading of religion’s solution of the problem of death, we see in the “Elegy” a modern solution flowing: life has meaning if I am known, death has meaning if I have been a celebrity. True (5-8), the “annals of the Poor” are full of “homely joys” (6) and “useful toil” (7), but that is not enough for “Grandeur” and “Ambition” (8), and Gray, instead of telling Ambition and Grandeur that they themselves signify little or nothing before their Father and their God (32), answers their objection to the insignificance of the humble villagers by pleading in the longest single section of the “Elegy” (12-19) that it may have been only circumstances that prevented the villagers from being as well-known as the greatest celebrities in the land!

But how can being a celebrity give significance to life, or consolation in death? Firstly, as Gray sees, one can be famous for good or evil (17,18), and how can evil celebrity be a good thing? And secondly, if every villager in England were well-known, not one of them would be well-known! Yet most everybody today wants to get on television or into the newspapers, because, as they think, it is appearing in the media that gives meaning to life! Yet there is not possibly room in the media for everyone to appear. Do only celebrities then have meaningful lives?

The Prussians used to say “Sein mehr als Scheinen”, meaning that being is more important than appearing. But today I do not mind being a nobody just as long as I appear to somebody, notably on their camera. Hence cameras everywhere, and special smiles and efforts for a camera such as I bestow on no real person. I live only in a lens. To live thus in a world of appearances as opposed to the world of reality is a feature of modern life dawning in Gray’s “Elegy”.

Where does it come from? From the weakening of the Christian religion. For if I not only believe but know that God exists, that He watches all of my actions, and depending on them will reward me with a glorious Heaven or punish me with a terrible Hell, regardless of what my fellow human beings observe or think of me, then my least thought, word and deed take on a significance for eternity which has nothing to do with their being praised or blamed, known or unknown, by other men.

Such meaning being lent to this life by the next was vaguely understood by the pre-Christian pagans, but it was stamped clearly upon medieval men’s hearts and minds by the triumph of Christianity. Then came modern times in which Christ began progressively to be moved out of Christ-ianity, leaving –ianity, only one letter away from inanity, or emptiness. Indeed the emptying out of the Man-God left a huge gap in men’s lives. But Nature abhors a vacuum. Therefore somebody else has to be watching me for a post-Christian’s life to have meaning. So if I no longer believe in God or the angels. I will believe in the media and cameras.

Of course it is not necessarily the business of poets to be writing religious tracts or poems on eternal life. However, it cannot not be their business to tell the truth. If then they tackle a great subject like the meaning of life and death, their poems are bound to be measured against the fullness of known truth. Measured in this way, Gray’s “Elegy” is a noble lament for death as the loss of life, but it is an inadequate understanding of the meaning of that life.

Logically, Gray’s half-solution has little or no appeal for modern readers who have little or no sense of religion left in them. And it can seem to have little to offer to religious souls that have the fullness of the solution in them. But let such souls not scorn Gray or the many artists like him of the last few centuries. What they produced when they produced it may well have formed part of the falling away from the full solution, but by that very fact it can seem less alien and more accessible to modern souls seeking to climb back up, out of today’s desolating materialism. The same staircase that was built to serve downwards can be used to climb upwards!

Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, France, where he attends Mass celebrated by the clergy of the IMBC. He founded True Restoration in 2006.

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4 Responses

  1. De Liliis says:

    It's been a long time since I read poetry, though I have many many books of it.

    This was good to read and contemplate.

    The Dinoscopus blog seems to be closed, or at least closed to the public, a shame since I enjoyed it. At least we get some of Bishop Williamson here, he is always interesting. 🙂

  2. You can get access to the weekly letters simply by emailing dinoscopus at gmail dot com

  3. De Liliis says:

    Thank you for the heads up! I shall sign up.

  4. Fu-Fen says:

    How would you compare Gray's Elegy to Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey if you had to compare a thematic concern or a tool of figurative language?