UGC MHRD e Pathshala Subject: English
Principal Investigator: Prof. Tutun Mukherjee; University of Hyderabad
Paper 02: English Literature 1590 – 1798
Paper Coordinator: Dr. Anna Kurian; University of Hyderabad
Module No 23: Thomas Gray
Content Writer: Dr. Sindhu Menon; University of Hyderabad
Content Reviewer: Prof. Tutun Mukherjee;University of Hyderabad
Language Editor: Dr. Anna Kurian; University of Hyderabad
Section1: Lesson Plan.
This unit deals with the 18th
Section2: Literary Background
century poet Thomas Gray, with special focus on his most famous poem “An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. The lesson will be divided into sections which will deal, in turn, with the literary background, the life and works of Gray, an explanation of the poem followed by a critical appreciation, a story board outlining the major aspects covered in the lesson, points to ponder, trivia, multiple choice and essay questions, a suggested reading list as well as links to audio visual resources.
The last 40 years of the 18th
A number of developments are seen in this period which are all in some ways departures from the rigidly ordered and intellectual phase of Neoclassicism and Augustan writing. In a way, they prepared the way for Romanticism. Some of the important components were the ‘’Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress) phase in German poetry, the cultural primitivism or idea of the Noble Savage circulated by Rousseau, the cult of sensibility in the sentimental novel, the melancholy of the English Graveyard School of Poetry, the sensationalism of the early Gothic novels and the revival of interest in the old folk songs and ballads.
century in European and especially English writing has been referred to as the pre- romantic age, the age of transition and the age of sensibility.
Moving away from the rationalism and formal styles of the early part of the century, i.e. the Neoclassic period writers began to experiment with emotion, rural and melancholy themes, the cult of sensibility or feeling, introspection, medievalism etc., to eschew poetic diction and to experiment with less rigid verse forms. The period marked the transition from Neoclassicism to the full blown Romanticism of the next century.
The poets of the Graveyard School focused on themes of death and bereavement. Most poems in this group were imitations of Robert Blair’s popular long and morbid poem, “The Grave” (1743) and Edward Young’s blank verse philosophical work “Night Thoughts” (1742- 45). These poems discourse on the terrors of the physical manifestations of death, the transitory nature of human existence, the melancholy aroused by a graveyard setting etc. The meditative and philosophical dimensions of the Graveyard School found their most famous expression in Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”(1751). The poem is a gently melancholic elegy
devoted to the unknown villagers buried in the churchyard and suggests the mutability and mortality of all things.
Section 3: Thomas Gray- Life and Works.
Thomas Gray was born on 26th
Gray died at the age of 55 and was buried beside his mother in the churchyard of Stoke Poges, which was the setting for his famous elegy.
December, 1716 at Cornhill, London. His father was a scrivener by profession. Gray was the sole survivor of 12 children of a harsh and abusive marriage and after it broke up, he was brought up by his mother and maternal uncles. He was sent to school at Eton in 1725 where it is recorded that he preferred scholarly pursuits and avoided athletics. He formed a close friendship with three other boys of the same tastes including Horace Walpole, son of the Prime Minister. In 1754, he entered Peterhouse, Cambridge and produced some admired Latin verse. Later he set out on the Grand Tour with Walpole, but this was disrupted by a quarrel and Gray returned to Cambridge. The friendship was later renewed. In 1742, Gray settled at Cambridge and began to publish English verse, the earliest among which included “Sonnet on the Death of Mr. Richard West”, “Ode to Spring”, “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” and Hymn to Adversity.” He achieved fame only with the publication in 1751 of the “Elegy” which was long in the making. The poem was instantly successful and the poet a celebrity. Unfortunately, it also had the effect of Gray being regarded in general as a one poem poet. His later Pindaric Odes, “The Bard” and “The Progress of Poesy” were sharply critiqued for willful obscurity and Gray virtually gave up composition to bury himself in antiquarian studies.
Section 4: Explanation of “The Elegy”
The first three stanzas are employed in setting the scene for the poem. It is sunset, which is evoked through an image of death, the ‘knell’ or death bell of the departing day which is rung by the curfew. The weary ploughman turns homeward, the cows head in from pasture and the landscape is slowly cleared till the speaker is solitary in the darkness. The atmosphere is solemn,
still and dusky and the few sounds there are, are in keeping with the somber mood – the beetle’s occasional hum, the plaintive cry of the owl which is associated with night etc.
This is followed by a description of the churchyard where under the yew tree and the elms, grown over with tuft, the forefathers of the village are buried in their graves or “narrow cells”. The usual images associated with waking up- the fresh smell of dawn, the swallows twitter, the cock’s crow are all evoked to emphasize that the sleepers in the churchyard would not respond to any of these again as their sleep is that of death. They will not participate anymore in the daily evening routine of the hearth fire burning, the housewife preparing for their return and children competing to climb on the fathers’ knees and be kissed. While alive these country men had been hearty farmers who drove their oxen to plough the fields and cut the woods with sturdy axes. They were hearty and jocund and now are still and silent.
The poet personifies Ambition and Grandeur, requesting them not to be disrespectful or disdainful to the humble graves and tales of these people. Their work and life may have been ordinary, but it was “Honest toil” and their stories though short and simple are not to be disdained. The moral lesson is driven home; all the heraldic pride of birth, all the pomp and show of life, all the gifts of wealth and beauty await the same call of death as does the poorest village life. All paths of life, no matter how different in appearance, in the end “lead alike to the grave.”
There is therefore no point in considering someone as superior or inferior as wer are all bound to be united by death at last.
There may be no grand memorials erected for these simple people, but that is no reason for proud men to scoff. They may not have monuments in the solemn church where prayers are sung, but what after all is the point of such monuments? Rhetorically the poet asks if decorated urns for holding the ashes or lifelike statues can call back the living breath to a dead body. Can flattery or ambition in anyway provoke a response in those who are departed from life?
Obviously not, whether one is buried in a simple grave or in a grand vault with magnificent paraphernalia. The ‘for-ever’ nature of death is emphasized here.
In life, the villagers were discriminated against on account of their poverty. In this unknown churchyard, there might be buried unsung heroes whose talents did not have a chance to develop. They might have been passionate poets, skilled musicians and potential emperors.
But knowledge through education was largely denied to them and the hardship of making a living dried up the currents of inspiration they might have benefitted from. They lived and died unknown, like flowers blooming in a desert or gems underwater where there are no appreciative audiences. The poet goes on to illustrate his point with specific examples- there may have been famous revolutionaries and poets like Hampden, Cromwell and Milton buried here, but their abilities went unseen. Hampden was known for opposing the King in unfair tax affairs, a villager buried here might well have shown the same zeal in resisting an oppressive landlord. Cromwell brought about the Puritan rule, but with much bloodshed and havoc, the potential Cromwell buried in the country churchyard is at least innocent of blood. There well may be those who if given the chance might have been great poets like Milton, but they had no opportunity.
The villagers were therefore denied many opportunities of doing good and achieving fame. It was not their lot in life to gain applause for orations, to be scornful of threats, to usher in prosperity and to be thanked as benefactors of the nation. But, it is crucially important to note that if their virtues were hemmed in, so were their vices. They could not become bloodthirsty tyrants or prostitute artistic gifts for monetary gain. All in all, their desires like their lives were moderate and in the sheltered village away from the corruption and bustle of towns, they were able to live peacefully.
Yet even these humble villagers are not totally neglected in death. Some small memorial is erected on each grave, inscribed with dates of birth and death and perhaps some brief moral text. No one, says the poet left this life with its joys and fears willing to be completely forgotten, the desire to be remembered, to be missed by a few at least is so deeply ingrained in us that it persist even beyond the grave. And in recognition of this, the living of the village have paid whatever humble tribute they could to their dead.
These thoughts bring the poet to contemplate his own inevitable death. How will his death be recorded? He imagines a scene after his death where some similar minded enquirer will ask a villager what became of him. The answer would be that he was often seen on those ways, walking in solitude and lost in fancy, sometimes smiling, sometimes drooping but regularly frequenting the paths. One day he was not seen and two days afterwards his body was carried by for burial. The villager points out the gravestone with its epitaph which he directs the literate enquirer to read.
The poem concludes with the epitaph the poet has composed for himself which forms the last three stanzas. In it, the poet is described as unknown to fame and fortune, of humble birth but scholarly. He claims a warm and sincere soul and that he gave to the sorrows around him a tear which was all he had. Heaven richly rewarded him by giving all he wanted- a true friend. He asks readers to leave his merits and frailties alike alone in God’s care till it is time for Heaven’s judgement.
Section 5: Critical Appreciation
Gray’s “Elegy” is a poem of philosophical meditation and universal application. It is especially noteworthy in how the poet intertwines the twin themes of mortality and morality.
There is a sermon running throughout the poem containing moral lessons on the folly and worthlessness of worldly pride and ambition when all will be levelled by death. The finality of death is touchingly brought home as well as the fragility of life.
The “Elegy” functions at different levels – it is an elegy for the simple folk buried in the churchyard who otherwise have no poem to praise them, it is an elegy for all humanity and it is a personal elegy for the poet himself. There is an interesting strategy of disavowal throughout- the poem disclaims, largely, the need for memorialization but is itself in a commemorative if anonymous tradition. It points out the futility of showy memorials and dedications but also indicates the human sensibility which yearns for some remembrance. To some extent, it sets out to fill this need.
Despite all its awareness of death, the poem is keenly perceptive of the pulse of life. The everyday lives of the villagers, the activities they indulged in and would no more participate in are poignantly chronicled as worth remembering and recording. “The short and simple annals of the poor” are preserved in the poem as history no less than the chronicles of the famous.
The discrimination meted out in life is criticized, with a clear reminder that talent alone is not enough; a conducive atmosphere is also required. The importance of appreciation in development is remarked on, with no one to savor the beauty or fragrance, gems and flowers are hidden treasures. Human performance needs human judgement and praise to reach its optimum level. There is an attempt to balance things, however. With opportunity comes temptation and corruption and in that context the confined nature of the villager’s lives meant that their
innocence was assured. There is a distinct space for a moral question regarding the ethics of choice in virtue or vice to be asked here.
The care taken in establishing the setting- twilight in a graveyard- amply rewards the poet by the somber hue it casts over the whole poem. The way the landscape is gradually emptied out leaving nothing but darkness is well in the graveyard tradition. The figure of the solitary, melancholy poet contemplating the surroundings looks forward to Romanticism where the solitary individual was to be the central icon. It clearly moves away from the Neoclassical social poetry which focused on groups.
The account of the longing for life despite the resignation to death is skillfully portrayed.
The poem insists that no one quits this life without one sigh or one backward glance and that there is an all too human wish however irrational to be remembered. There is a community of remembrance set up in the poem where the passerby might stop casually and sigh at the reminder of death. In that sense, we are all mourners for departed humanity though we may not know the vast majority individually.
Including his own epitaph is a subtle way of focusing the poem from its broader vistas to a single point. As if the poet foresees there will be none to write an elegy for him or to the contrary, because he does not trust the compositions of others to be adequate, he composes his own. The epitaph gives a Romantic picture of the poet as eccentric, an observer of the rural scene but never quite part of it. It is assertively confident in its emphasized modesty- the poet lays claim to what he considers worthwhile and requests human judgement to be suspended.
Both communality and isolation are significant in this poem. There is the village society, the larger human community and these are important. But at the same time we are alone in our
“narrow selves” and the figure pondering his own death is shrouded in isolation. The ways in which groups function and the ultimate solitude of each individual being are both sharply evoked here.
Section 6: Comments and Quotes
According to Dr. Johnson, “The Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo”.
Herbert W Starr points out “probably no other poem of the same length has contributed so many famous phrases to our language.”
Carl J Webber remarks "Thomas Gray is the pioneer literary spokesman for the ordinary man, the patron saint of the unknown soldier.... Gray's rude forefathers were also the forefathers of Wordsworth's Michael and Peter Bell.”
Several critics accuse the elegy of being too full of truisms. But they are countered by those like Graham Hough who remarks “they are compelling because they are not only what they first appear, majestic statements about the common lot: they are also the solution of Gray's personal problem, and perhaps the only one possible in his day.”
The Epitaph has been seen in different ways – as an afterthought and a weaker addition to the poem and as a strong and harmonious conclusion. D C Tovey is of the opinion that the Epitaph “is unquestionably the weakest part of the poem, and was, perhaps written about 1742 and inserted in the “Elegy” “as an afterthought.” CleanthBrooks on the contrary remarks that
“the Epitaph is not to be judged in isolation. It is part of a context, and a very rich context. We have to read it in terms of the conditions of certain dramatic propriety which the context sets up.”
According to Frank H Ellis “the Epitaph is actually the conclusion of a very tightly organized rhetorical structure. It supplies perspective and sympathy for the character whose life illustrates everything the poem has to say.”
Section 7: Storyboard
• The poem belongs to the Pre-Romantic age and can be included in the Graveyard School.
• A transition to Romanticism can be seen in the poem.
• Gray was born in 1716.
• He was educated and finally settled in Cambridge
• He was scholarly and not inclined to athletics
• His chief poems include “Sonnet on the Death of Richard West”, “Hymn to Adversity”, “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”, “Ode to Spring”,
“The Bard” and “The Progress of Poesy” apart from the “Elegy”.
• Gray died at the age of 55 and was buried at Stoke Poges churchyard which was the setting for his poem.
• The initial stanzas of the “Elegy” establish the setting for the poem which is dark, solemn and solitary.
• While the poem is about death, images of life abound indicating what is no longer available after death.
• There is a good deal of personification in the poem, with Ambition, Grandeur etc. being asked not to mock the poor villagers buried in the churchyard.
• Death is presented as a great leveler, with rich and poor alike moving towards the grave.
• The folly of erecting grand memorials is pointed out as nothing can recall the dead.
• It is stressed that the villagers, if given the opportunity might have been great artists or statesmen. But they were deprived by poverty.
• Their talents withered away for lack of an audience or encouragement.
• At the same time the comparative innocence of their lives is also remarked on.
If virtues were not given room to grow, vices were also under control.
• Despite the finality of death, the desire to be remembered in some small way is universal.
• The villagers have erected humble monuments to meet this desire and they make others pause and reflect on common mortality.
• In the last part of the poem, Gray reflects on his own death.
• He presents himself as a typically eccentric “Romantic” poet who wandered through the village paths.
• The last three stanzas constitute the poet’s own epitaph where he is both humble and confident and asks to be left to God’s judgement.
Section 8: Points to Ponder
• The democratizing note in the poem
• The element of self-pity in the Epitaph
• The multiple clientele of the elegy serves
• The necessity of approbation for the use of potential
Section 9: Trivia
Gray was so afraid of fire that he kept a rope ladder handy at all times in his rooms at Cambridge, to climb out of the window in case of need.
The original version of the “Elegy” had Roman names instead of Milton, Cromwell and Hampden. Gray brought things closer home when he revised the poem.