There to be a time when every schoolchild can quote lines from cutting board Gray’s poem ‘Elegy written in a nation Churchyard’, because it was a well-known poem to be taught, learnt by rote, and analysed in colleges in Britain. Gray’s poem gave Thomas durable the expression ‘far from the madding crowd’ for use as the location of his fourth published novel; the expression ‘paths of glory’ was supplied as the title for Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war film; and the phrase ‘mute inglorious Milton’ has become well-known. Yet in recent decades its popularity has actually declined. Is the still precious reading, studying, and subjecting to close analysis? Yes, yes, and yes. First, here’s a reminder of the message of ‘Elegy written in a nation Churchyard’, before we relocate on to explain 1) why it isn’t an elegy, 2) why Gray didn’t desire it published, and also 3) just how an obscure poet who passed away young assisted to sow the seeds of this good poem.

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Elegy composed in a nation Churchyard

The curfew tolls the knell that parting day,The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,The plowman homeward plods his weary way,And pipeline the civilization to darkness and also to me.


Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,And all the air a solemn stillness holds,Save whereby the beetle wheel his droning flight,And drowsy tinklings lull the far-off folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’rThe moping owl does come the moon complainOf such, as wand’ring close to her secret bow’r,Molest her old solitary reign.


Beneath those rough elms, the yew-tree’s shade,Where heaves the turf in countless a mould’ring heap,Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,The crude forefathers that the hamlet sleep.

The breezy speak to of incense-breathing Morn,The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,No much more shall rouse lock from their lowly bed.


For lock no an ext the blazing hearth candlestick burn,Or liven housewife ply her evening care:No youngsters run come lisp their sire’s return,Or rise his knees the envied kiss come share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has actually broke;How jocund did they drive your team afield!How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!


Let not Ambition mock their helpful toil,Their homely joys, and also destiny obscure;Nor Grandeur hear through a disdainful smileThe quick and an easy annals that the poor.

The boast the heraldry, the pomp that pow’r,And all the beauty, every that riches e’er gave,Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.The routes of glory lead but to the grave.


Nor you, ye proud, impute to this the fault,If Mem’ry o’er their dig no trophies raise,Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vaultThe pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bustBack come its mansion call the fleeting breath?Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear that Death?


Perhaps in this neglected spot is laidSome heart once pregnant through celestial fire;Hands, the the pole of empire can have sway’d,Or wak’d to ecstasy the life lyre.

But expertise to their eyes she ample pageRich through the spoils that time did ne’er unroll;Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,And froze the genial existing of the soul.


Full numerous a gem of purest ray serene,The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:Full numerous a flow’r is born come blush unseen,And rubbish its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breastThe tiny tyrant the his fields withstood;Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,Some Cromwell guiltless the his country’s blood.


Th’ applause that list’ning senates come command,The risks of pain and also ruin come despise,To scatter plenty o’er a laugh land,And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot of forbade: no one circumscrib’d aloneTheir farming virtues, yet their crimes confin’d;Forbade come wade through slaughter to a throne,And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of aware truth to hide,To quench the blushes that ingenuous shame,Or heap the shrine the Luxury and PrideWith incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

Far indigenous the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,Their sober wishes never ever learn’d come stray;Along the cool sequester’d vale of lifeThey preserved the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet ev’n this bones from insult to protect,Some frashill memorial still put up nigh,With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, your years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,The ar of fame and also elegy supply:And many a divine text around she strews,That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,This pleasing anxious gift e’er resign’d,Left the warm precincts of the you re welcome day,Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?

On part fond breast the parting heart relies,Some pious fall the closing eye requires;Ev’n indigenous the tomb the voice the Nature cries,Ev’n in our ashes live your wonted fires.

For thee, who mindful that th’ unhonour’d DeadDost in this lines your artless tale relate;If chance, by lonely contemplation led,Some kindred spirit shall inquire your fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain might say,“Oft have we viewed him at the peep of dawnBrushing v hasty steps the dews awayTo fulfill the sunlight upon the upland lawn.

“There in ~ the foot that yonder nodding beechThat wreathes its old an excellent roots for this reason high,His listless size at noontide would certainly he stretch,And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would certainly rove,Now drooping, woeful wan, favor one forlorn,Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.

“One morn i miss’d that on the custom’d hill,Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree;Another came; nor yet alongside the rill,Nor up the lawn, no one at the wood was he;

“The next with dirges early in sad arraySlow thro’ the church-way route we witnessed him borne.Approach and also read (for thou canst read) the lay,Grav’d on the rock beneath yon age thorn.”

THE EPITAPHHere rests his head ~ above the lap that EarthA youth to Fortune and also to call unknown.Fair scientific research frown’d no on his humble birth,And Melancholy mark’d him for she own.

Large to be his bounty, and also his heart sincere,Heav’n walk a recompense as mainly send:He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas every he wish’d) a friend.

No farther look for his merits to disclose,Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,(There castle alike in trembling expect repose)The bosom that his Father and also his God.

First, a brief review of the poem’s background. Gray completed ‘Elegy in a country Churchyard’ in 1750 and also sent the poem to his girlfriend Horace Walpole (the inventor the the Gothic novel and coiner of words ‘serendipity’), that circulated it amongst his literature friends prior to Gray published the poem in 1751. He published it ~ above 15 February 1751,

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one day prior to a pirated version was as result of be published without Gray’s permission. This is the only reason Gray agreed to publish it: it was going come be published anyway, through or there is no his say-so. But the germ that the poem actually goes back to 1742, as soon as the young poet Richard West – a friend of both Gray and Walpole – died, while only in his mid-twenties. Gray created a sonnet ~ above the death of his friend, but it would certainly be the ‘Elegy written in a country Churchyard’ – an elegy not just for West yet for every promising folk who toil far in obscurity and also never had a opportunity to fulfil your potential – that would certainly prove his lasting legacy. (In the very same year that Gray’s girlfriend died, the coined the nonce-word ‘leucocholy’, for ‘a white Melancholy’ which ‘though it rarely laughs or dances, no one ever quantities to what one calls happiness or Pleasure, however is a great easy sort of a state.’ (‘Melancholy’ is indigenous the Greek because that ‘black bile’.)

Technically, though, in terms of its type Gray’s ‘Elegy’ is not an elegy. It no mourn West or any type of one other individual, however is instead an ext of an ode, which look at Gray meditating ~ above death and also the resides of basic rustic folk. This, in summary, is what the ‘Elegy’ is about. The ‘country churchyard’ referred to in the poem’s title belonged to St Giles’ parish church in ~ Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire, although it’s most likely that Gray had actually written much of the poem before he moved to Stoke Poges. (Confusingly, return Gray’s ‘Elegy’ no an elegy in the strictest sense but much more of an ode, his other most renowned poem, ‘Ode ~ above the death of a Favourite Cat, drown in a bath tub of Goldfishes’, is much more of an elegy than an ode.)

As we remarked in ~ the beginning, ‘Elegy written in a nation Churchyard’ has bequeathed a variety of famous titles and phrases come the world. However Gray’s usage of language in this city is masterly appropriate from the start. Think about the use of collection sounds in that opening stanza:

The curfew tolls the knell the parting day,The lowing herd wind gradually o’er the lea,The plowman homeward plods his weary way,And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Was there ever before a better description that the weariness the the night after a hard day’s work, brilliantly recording the time of work when simple labouring people would retire home after toiling in the fields all day? Look in ~ the way ‘lowing’ is heard again in ‘slowly’, turning into ‘plowman’ yet with the earlier o-sound returning in ‘homeward’, simply as the plowman self returns home. (Similarly, ‘lea’ is echoed in ‘leaves’. However really, the tenderness play the assonance and alliteration in the whole stanza is majestic. It’s pleasing the the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for words ‘lyricism’ is from thomas Gray, composing in 1760.)

Yet for all that, is Gray calling because that political change in the ‘Elegy’? he is singing the praises that the unsung heroes of England, those that pass their resides in anonymity; yet does that seem to it is in saying that these civilization would be much better off if their talents were recognised, or if people from humble backgrounds had much more opportunities? wilhelm Empson, in an prominent reading in his 1935 book Some version of Pastoral, assumed not. For Empson, the poem – whether deliberately or not on Gray’s component – appears to it is in conservative in that message, suggesting that the standing quo is the natural way of points (no matter how much the quo, come borrow indigenous Laurence Peter, may have lost that is status). Empson cites the adhering to stanza:

Full numerous a gem of pure ray serene,The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:Full many a flow’r is born come blush unseen,And waste its sweet on the desert air.

As Empson points the end in his evaluation of this stanza, Gray’s analogy with the natural people – through gemstones and flowers – makes English society’s lack of society mobility it seems to be ~ natural, even inevitable. If this obscure farm yard labourers are truly choose flowers the ‘blush unseen’, i.e. They perform their duty and duty without anyone appreciating them, then the is fine: castle are, after all, ‘born’ to perform so. Those more, as Empson also highlights, ‘a gem does not mind gift in a cave and a flower prefers not to it is in picked; us feel that man is favor the flower, together short-lived, natural, and also valuable, and this top us into feeling the he is much better off there is no opportunities’. Gray’s ‘Elegy’ definitely offers no proposed replacement because that the way Things Are.

Yet for every that, there room moments in Gray’s ‘Elegy’ wherein he plainly wishes united state to reflect on the truth that ‘nobility’ may not be a birth-right yet a way of living, and that talent does not exist solely among the wealthy and the privileged: it’s simply that the wealthy and privileged room the people who have actually the means and time to bite their talents:

Chill Penury repress’d your noble rage,And froze the genial existing of the soul.

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Note the word ‘noble’: this would-be Miltons or Cromwells can have withstood ‘Penury’ or poverty, but their fury or righteousness to be truly ‘noble’, for all that. This is, in the last analysis, the true meaning and love of Gray’s ‘Elegy’: whether or no it’s a an excellent thing that so countless promising talents walk unnoticed and also uncultivated, many civilization pass lives of quiet dignity and rustic simplicity. And also which that us, once visiting a country churchyard, has not spared a assumed for the unknown men and women whose an easy lives space commemorated by mere names and dates?

Image (top): cutting board Gray portrait through Benjamin Wilson (1721-1788), via Wikimedia Commons. Picture (bottom): St Giles’ churchyard in ~ Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire (credit: Michael Garlick, 2016), via geograph.org.uk.