Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is noteworthy in that it mourns the death not of great or famous people, but of common men. The speaker of this poem sees a country churchyard at sunset, which impels him to meditate on the nature of human mortality. The poem invokes the classical idea of memento mori, a Latin phrase which statesplainly to all mankind, “Remember that you must die.” The speaker considers the fact that in death, there is no difference between great and common people. He goes on to wonder if among the lowly people buried in the churchyard there had been any natural poets or politicians whose talent had simply never been discovered or nurtured. This thought leads him to praise the dead for the honest, simplelives that they lived.
In the first stanza, the speaker observes the signs of a country day drawing to a close: a curfew bell ringing, a herd of cattle moving across the pasture, and a farm worker returning home. The speaker is then left alone to contemplate the isolated rural scene.
In the second stanza the speaker is pensive, as he describes the peacefullandscape that surrounds him. Even the air is characterized as having a “solemn stillness.”
The sound of an owl hooting intrudes upon the evening quiet. We are told that the owl “complains”; The owl’s call, then, is suggestive of grief. Note that at no point in these three opening stanzas does Gray directly refer to death or a funeral; rather, he indirectly creates a funereal atmosphereby describing just a few mournful sounds.
It is in the fourth stanza that the speaker directly draws our attention to the graves in the country churchyard. We are presented with two potentially conflicting images of death. Line 14 describes the heaps of earth surrounding the graves; in order to dig a grave, the earth must necessarily be disrupted. Note that the syntax of this lineis slightly confusing. We would expect this sentence to read “Where the turf heaves” — not “where heaves the turf”: Gray has inverted the word order. Just as the earth has been disrupted, the syntax imitates the way in which the earth has been disrupted. But by the same token, the “rude Forefathers” buried beneath the earth seem entirely at peace: we are told that they are laid in “cells,” a termwhich reminds us of the quiet of a monastery, and that they “sleep.”
If the “Forefathers” are sleeping, however, the speaker reminds us that they will never again rise from their “beds” to hear the pleasurable sounds of country life that the living do. The term “lowly beds” describes not only the unpretentious graves in which the forefathers are buried, but the humble conditions thatthey endured when they were alive.
The speaker then moves on to consider some of the other pleasures the dead will no longer enjoy: the happiness of home, wife, and children.
The dead will also no longer be able to enjoy the pleasures of work, of plowing the fields each day. This stanza points to the way in which the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” containselements of both Augustan and Romantic poetry. Poetry that describes agriculture — as this one does — is called georgic. Georgic verse was extremely popular in the eighteenth century. Note, however, that Gray closely identifies the farmers with the land that they work. This association of man and nature is suggestive of a romantic attitude. The georgic elements of the stanza almost demand that wecharacterize it as typical of the eighteenth century, but its tone looks forward to the Romantic period.
The next four stanzas caution those who are wealthy and powerful not to look down on the poor. These lines warn the reader not to slight the “obscure” “destiny” of the poor — the fact that they will never be famous or have long histories, or “annals,” written about them.