From ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’

‘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.

Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ has always been one of the most popular poems of the 18th century. It was written in 1750 and sent to his friend Horace Walpole – inventor of the gothic novel and builder of a fantastic gothic house at Strawberry Hill. It was Walpole who made the arrangements for its publication the next year.

These lines are its opening. The poem goes on to meditate on the fate of the villagers whose obscure lives denied them any chance of fame. The speaker ponders whether ‘some mute inglorious Milton here may rest’ before reflecting on the inevitability of death even for the most powerful (‘the paths of glory lead but to the grave’). The tone throughout is melancholy and, to a certain extent, ambiguous. The poem seems profoundly unsure whether to regret the fact that most people live and die in obscurity and are soon forgotten, or the celebrate the peace that comes from living ‘far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’.

This uncertainty is part of the Elegy’s appeal. Poets of the previous generation, the generation of Alexander Pope, had written poetry which aspired to clarity, rationality, and universality. The ambiguity of the Elegy is part of an alternative interest in individual experience and in emotion rather than intellect.

Horror had an important place in the invention of this new focus. Gray’s friend Walpole turned to it in his gothic novel The Castle of Otranto to create sensational effects which made experience, rather than rationality, the point of the book (which has a ludicrous plot).

The opening of Gray’s elegy echoes another fantastically popular poem on the mid-18th century which initiated the new vogue for terror – ‘The Grave’ by Robert Blair. Published in 1743, ‘The Grave’ is another meditation on death. It relies on a luxurious morbidity, supernatural effects (including ghosts), and description of physical sensations of horror. The opening of ‘The Grave’ and of Gray’s Elegy share many elements. Like Gray, Blair describes a churchyard at night with yew trees, moonlight, and an owl. The tone of Blair’s poem is, however different. Whereas Gray evokes melancholy, Blair aims at real spine-tingling horror:

‘Roused from their Slumbers
In grim array the grizly Spectres rise,
Grin horrible, and obstinately sullen
Pass and repass, hush’d as the foot of night.
Again! the screech-owl shrieks: ungracious sound!
I’ll hear no more, it makes one’s blood run chill.’

Gray does not make use of the same techniques. There are no supernatural effects like ghosts in his Elegy, nor does he describe the physical effects of terror (‘blood run chill’). His poem is more measured. This is true even of its form. Blair writes in blank verse (lines of poetry without rhyme or regular stanzas). Gray’s Elegy is in regular stanzas with an abab rhyme-scheme. Blair introduced a sensational seam of emotion into 18th century English poetry. Gray’s is a measured response to that new impulse. His Elegy embodies a polite form of emotion. It is controlled, restrained, to be enjoyed rather than overwhelming. It is a very liveable form of feeling.

This was the promise of Sentimentalism, a cluster of philosophical and artistic projects spanning the second half of the 18th century. The basic idea was that feeling and morality could go hand-in-hand through an innate moral sense we supposedly enjoy. If this flourished, then we would instinctively live well. Poems like Gray’s Elegy offer an ideal of how emotion can be integrated into a thoughtful and regulated way of life. It does so by avoiding the raw horror of ‘The Grave’.

At the start of the 19th century, Romanticism would turn new attention to the disruptive potential of emotion. It is not a complete surprise that, as Gray’s moderation lost fashion, William Blake provided illustrations for ‘The Grave’. But writers like Wordsworth would continue to explore the links between emotion and morality. For that reason Gray is sometimes described as a pre-cursor of Romanticism. But that hardly does him justice. Rather than view him through the prism of what was written fifty years later, we can enjoy his poetry as a sophisticated engagement in its own right with a set of problems we’ve hardly exhausted today.

Tags: Death, discovering poetry, History, Language, Romanticism