Thomas Gray has written one of his career-best poems “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” between 1746 and 1750. It is an elegy. Though the poem is written to mourn the death of the poor and simple villagers buried in the rural churchyard, it is basically a poem to mourn the loss of the simple people and the simplicity of life. It is a sad poem.
The poem has 32 stanzas and heroic quatrains since each stanza have four iambic pentameter lines. In the first three stanzas, the poet has created a perfect rural and sad setting suitable for mourning the death of close ones. Even, the poet takes evening for mourning time that suggests the end of the day and also the parting of life. It also denotes the upcoming night, darkness, grief, and sadness in the human mind. The sad atmosphere is enhanced by referring to the grief-stricken silence, sound of curfew bell, the droning of the battle, hooting of the owl, and the mild sound from the sheep’s neck-bell. The poet is so much success here to create a sad moment and environment in the first stanza.
Next, he has described the cause of mourning. He refers to his ancestors who once lived simply in a small village, died, and buried at the churchyard. The poet remembers their relation with this nature, village, and bonding with their friends, relatives, and families. They will never come back to life and join the regular activities with their family members in the fields, enjoy the comfort and nature, work hard to cultivate lands, etc. The way of description of the cause of mourning has created a pathos suitable for the grave situation.
Then the poet deals with the general and refers to the laws of nature. According to the poet, nothing can save one from death though he has sophisticated ancestral history, power, beauty, and wealth. Death is inevitable to all. None can avoid it. The universal truth is the death is the leveler of the rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, powerful, and powerless. So, nobody should proud of his worldly things and matters. Here, the poet takes a scope to criticize those who think they are successful in this world, and thus, he brings forth a general moral tone.
The poet praises the forefathers referring to the possibilities they had latent in them. He morns to the dead villagers and thinks that maybe, there were some great poets and rulers, a Hamden, a Cromwell, or Milton who could not be that because of their poverty. Their poverty obstacles those to be flourish. The poet also mentions that there may have some unknown people among the villagers who are like the gems under the ocean or the lonely flower in the vast desert. They never killed to be empowered or committed crimes to be ashamed of. They were not ambitious. They could easily fulfill their desire. They did not get the opportunity to do great jobs for humanity. Thus the poet here glorifies the dead villagers for their simple and innocent lifestyle and touches the deep pathos.
In this stage, the poet is telling his own story. He refers to the tomb and its inscriptions and says that everybody wants to be remembered even after their death. Every human has the desire and so, the poet also wants not to be forgotten after his death. He slowly goes from the description of the poor villagers to his own life- objectivity to subjectivity.
Here the poet describes himself as a third person ‘thy’- a carefree countryman roaming all around the village where he gets the idea of writing this elegy. He goes to the hill to enjoy the sun rising, at noon he takes rest in a beach near a brook, and wander in the nearby woods. He thinks all his presence to and fro will be vanished after his death and he will not be found there anymore. It also brings back the pathos.
Finally, the poem ends up with an epitaph that reminds us that the poet was a melancholic scholar, generous, honest, passionate, and sympathetic in his heart. The epitaph ends up with faith in God’s mercy.