The following text was produced for Project Gutenberg by David Starner, Diane Monico and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net. — George P. Landow
To some the eighteenth-century definition of proper poetic matter is unacceptable; but to any who believe that true poetry may (if not "must") consist in "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed," Gray's "Churchyard" is a majestic achievement—perhaps (accepting the definition offered) the supreme achievement of its century. Its success, so the great critic of its day thought, lay in its appeal to "the common reader"; and though no friend of Gray's other work, Dr. Johnson went on to commend the "Elegy" as abounding "with images which find a mirrour in every mind and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo." Universality, clarity, incisive lapidary diction—these qualities may be somewhat staled in praise of the "classical" style, yet it is precisely in these traits that the "Elegy" proves most nobly. The artificial figures of rhetorical arrangement that are so omnipresent in the antitheses, chiasmuses, parallelisms, etc., of Pope and his school are in Gray's best quatrains unobtrusive or even infrequent.
Often in the art of the period an affectation of simplicity covers and reveals by turns a great thirst for ingenuity. Swift's prose is a fair example; in the "Tale of a Tub" and even in "Gulliver" at first sight there seems to appear only an honest and simple directness; but pry beneath the surface statements, or allow yourself to be dazzled by their coruscations of meaning, and you immediately see you are watching a stylistic prestidigitator. The later, more orderly dignity of Dr. Johnson's exquisitely chosen diction is likewise ingeniously studied and self-conscious. When Gray soared into the somewhat turgid pindaric tradition of his day, he too was slaking a thirst for rhetorical complexities. But in the "Elegy" we have none of that. Nor do we have artifices like the "chaste Eve" or the "meek-eyed maiden" apostrophized in Collins and Joseph Warton. For Gray the hour when the sky turns from opal to dusk leaves one not "breathless with adoration," but moved calmly to placid reflection tuned to drowsy tinklings or to a moping owl. It endures no contortions of image or of verse. It registers the sensations of the hour and the reflections appropriate to it—simply.
It is not difficult to be clear—so we are told by some who habitually fail of that quality—if you have nothing subtle to say. And it has been urged on high authority in our day that there is nothing really "fine" in Gray's "Churchyard." However conscious Gray was in limiting his address to "the common reader," we may be certain he was not writing to the obtuse, the illiterate or the insensitive. He was to create an evocation of evening: the evening of a day and the approaching night of life. The poem was not to be perplexed by doubt; it ends on a note of "trembling hope"—but on "hope." There are perhaps better evocations of similar moods, but not of this precise mood. Shakespeare's poignant Sonnet LXXIII ("That time of year"), which suggests no hope, may be one. Blake's "Nurse's Song" is, in contrast, subtly tinged with modernistic disillusion:
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And whisp'rings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.
Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring & your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.
Here, too, are no tremblings of hope, no sound confidence in the "average" man, such as Gray surprisingly glimpses. One begins to suspect that it is more necessary to be subtle in evocations of despair than in those of hope, even if the hope is tremulous. The mood Gray sought required no obvious subtlety. The nearest approach to Gray (found in Catullus) may likewise be said to be deficient in overtones; but it also comes home to the heart of everyman:
o quid solutis est beatius curis,
cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrino
labore fessi venimus larem ad nostrum
desideratoque acquiescimus lecto!
These simple lines convey what Gray's ploughman is achieving for one evening, but not what the rude forefathers have achieved for eternity. From the ploughman and the simple annals of the poor the poem diverges to reproach the proud and great for their disregard of undistinguished merit, and moves on to praise of the sequestered life, and to an epitaph applicable either to a "poeta ignotus" or to Gray himself. The epitaph with its trembling hope transforms the poem into something like a personal yet universal requiem; and for one villager—perhaps for himself—Gray seems to murmur through the gathering darkness: "et lux perpetua luceat ei." Although in this epitaph we may seem to be concerned with an individual, we do well to note that the youth to fortune and fame unknown, whose great "bounty" was only a tear, is as completely anonymous as the ploughman or the rude forefathers.
The somber aspects of evening are perhaps more steadily preserved by Gray than by his contemporaries. From Milton to Joseph Warton all poets had made their ploughman unwearied as (to quote Warton):
He jocund whistles thro' the twilight groves.
With Gray all this blithe whistling stopped together. Evening poems by Dyer, Warton, and Collins had tended to be "pretty," but here again Gray resisted temptation and regretfully omitted a stanza designed to precede immediately the epitaph:
There scatter'd oft, the earliest of ye Year
By hands unseen, are Show'rs of Violets found;
The Red-breast loves to build & warble there,
And little Footsteps lightly print the Ground.
With similar critical tact Gray realized that one might have too much of stately moral reflections unmixed with drama. Possibly such an idea determined him in discarding four noble quatrains with which he first designed to end his poem. After line 72 in the manuscript now in Eton College appeared these stanzas:
The thoughtless World to Majesty may bow
Exalt the brave, & idolize Success
But more to Innocence their Safety owe
Than Power & Genius e'er conspired to bless
And thou, who mindful of the unhonour'd Dead
Dost in these Notes their artless Tale relate
By Night & lonely Contemplation led
To linger in the gloomy Walks of Fate
Hark how the sacred Calm, that broods around
Bids ev'ry fierce tumultuous Passion cease
In still small Accents, whisp'ring from the Ground
A grateful Earnest of eternal Peace
No more with Reason & thyself at Strife
Give anxious Cares & endless Wishes room
But thro the cool sequester'd Vale of Life
Pursue the silent Tenour of thy Doom.
"And here," comments Mason, "the Poem was originally intended to conclude, before the happy idea of the hoary-headed Swain, &c. suggested itself to him." To reconstitute the poem with this original ending gives an interesting structure. The first three quatrains evoke the fall of darkness; four stanzas follow presenting the rude forefathers in their narrow graves; eleven quatrains follow in reproach of Ambition, Grandeur, Pride, et al., for failure to realize the high merit of humility. Then after line 72 of the final version would come these four rejected stanzas, continuing the reproach of "the thoughtless world," and turning all too briefly to one who could "their artless tale relate," and to the calm that then breathes around tumultuous passion and speaks of eternal peace—and "the silent tenor of thy doom."
That would give a simpler structure; and one may argue whether turning back from the thoughtless world to praise again the "cool sequester'd vale of life" and then appending "the happy idea of the hoary-headed swain, &c." does really improve the poem structurally. Its method is, however, more acceptable in that now the reflections are imbedded in "drama" (or at least in narrative), and the total effect is more pleasing to present-day readers since we escape, or seem to escape, from the cool universality of humble life to a focus on an individual grief. To end on a grim note of generalized "doom," would have given the poem a temporary success such as it deserved; and it must be acknowledged that the knell-like sound of "No more ... No more" (lines 20, 21) echoed and re-echoed for decades through the imaginations of gloom-fed poets. But Gray, although an undoubted "graveyard" poet, is no mere graveyard poet: he stands above and apart from the lot of them, and he was not content to end despondently in a descending gloom. His, as he told West, in a celebrated letter, was a "white melancholy, or rather leucocholy"; and he wrote of "lachrymae rerum" rather than of private mordant sorrows.
The poem is couched in universals: Gray writes in "a" country churchyard, and the actual Stoke Poges, dear and lovely as it doubtless was to Gray, clings to the fame of the poem almost by accident. And yet, by a sort of paradox, this "universal" poem in its setting and mood is completely English. One could go too far from home for examples of distinction—for the polar stars of the rude forefathers—just as one could err by excess of "commonplace" reflections. Some such idea encouraged Gray to modify his fifteenth quatrain, which in the Eton MS reads (the first line has partly perished from folding of the paper):
Some [Village] Cato [who] with dauntless Breast
The little Tyrant of his Fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Tully here may rest;
Some Caesar, guiltless of his Country's Blood.
The substitution of English names is an obvious attempt to bring truth closer to the souls of his readers by use of "domestica facta" and the avoidance of school-boy learning.
All these changes illustrate the quality of Gray's curious felicity. His assault on the reader's sensibilities was organized and careful: here is no sign of that contradiction in terms, "unpremeditated art." He probably did not work on the poem so long as historians have said he did, but he scanted neither time nor attention. Mason thought the poem begun and perhaps finished in 1742, and he connected its somberness with Gray's great sorrow over the death of his close friend Richard West. All this seems more than doubtful: to Dr. Thomas Wharton in September 1746 Gray mentioned recently composing "a few autumnal verses," and there is no real evidence of work on the poem before this time. Walpole evidently inclined to 1746 as the date of commencement, and it may be pointed out that Mason himself is not so sure of 1742 as have been his Victorian successors. All he says is, "I am inclined to believe that the Elegy ... was begun, if not concluded, at this time  also." Gray's reputation for extreme leisurely composition depends largely on the "inclination" to believe that the "Elegy" was begun in 1742 and on a later remark by Walpole concerning Gray's project for a History of Poetry. In a letter of 5 May 1761 Walpole joked to Montagu saying that Gray, "if he rides Pegasus at his usual foot-pace, will finish the first page two years hence." Not really so slow as this remark suggests, Gray finally sent his "Elegy" to Walpole in June of 1750, and in December he sent perhaps an earlier form of the poem to Dr. Wharton. Naturally delighted with the perfected utterance of this finely chiseled work, these two friends passed it about in manuscript, and allowed copies to be taken.
Publication, normally abhorrent to Gray, thus became inevitable, though apparently not contemplated by Gray himself. The private success of the poem was greater than he had anticipated, and in February of 1751 he was horrified to receive a letter from the editor of a young and undistinguished periodical, "The Magazine of Magazines," who planned to print forthwith the "ingenious poem, call'd Reflections in a Country-Churchyard." Gray hastily wrote to Walpole (11 February), insisting that he should "make Dodsley print it immediately" from Walpole's copy, without Gray's name, but with good paper and letter. He prescribed the titlepage as well as other details, and within four days Dodsley had the poem in print, and anticipated the piratical "Magazine" by one day. But the "Magazine" named Gray as the author, and success without anonymity was the fate of the "Elegy." Edition followed edition, and the poem was almost from birth an international classic.
One of the author's prescriptions for publication concerned the verse form. He told Walpole that Dodsley must "print it without any Interval between the Stanza's, because the Sense is in some Places continued beyond them." In the Egerton MS Gray had written the poem with no breaks to set off quatrains, but in the earlier MS (Eton College), where the poem is entitled, "Stanza's, wrote in a Country Church-Yard," the quatrains are spaced in normal fashion. The injunction shows Gray's sensitiveness as to metrical form. He had called the poem an Elegy only after urging by Mason, and he possibly doubted if his metre was "soft" enough for true elegy. The metre hitherto had not been common in elegies, though James Hammond's "Love Elegies" (1743) had used it and won acclaim. But the heroic (hendecasyllabic) quatrain was regarded in general as too lofty, stately, cool, for elegy. For the universal aspect of Gray's lament, however, it was highly apt as compared with the less majestic octosyllabic line, hitherto normal in this genre. For years after Gray's great success, however, most elegies, if in quatrain form, followed Gray's quatrain in manner, whether or not their subjects demanded the stately line.
The reasons why Gray is almost a poet of only one poem are not far to seek. He did not covet applause, and apart from melancholy his own emotions were too private to be published. In the "Elegy" he is true to himself and to the spirit of his age—perhaps of most ages. When he sought for material outside of his own experience, he went curiously to books, and was captivated by the "récherché." He was also caught by the rising cult of sublimity in his two great pindaric odes, and by the cult of the picturesque in his flirtations with Scandinavian materials. In these later poems he broadened the field of poetic material notably; but in them he hardly deepened the imaginative or emotional tone: his manner, rather, became elaborate and theatrical. The "Elegy" is the language of the heart sincerely perfected.
The poem has pleased many and pleased long—throughout two centuries. In part it works through "pleasing melancholy"; in part it appeals to innumerable humble readers conscious of their own unheralded merit. Inevitably, since the industrial revolution, modernist critics have tended to stress its appeal to class consciousness. This appeal, real though it is, can be overemphasized. The rude forefathers are not primarily presented as underprivileged. Though poverty-stricken and ignorant, they are happy in family life and jocund in the field. "Nature is nature wherever placed," as the intellectuals of Gray's time loved to say, and the powers of the village fathers, potentially, equal the greatest; their virtue is contentment. They neither want nor need "storied urn or animated bust." If they are unappreciated by Ambition, Grandeur, Pride, et al., the lack of appreciation is due to a corruption of values. The value commended in the "Elegy" is that of the simple life, which alone is rational and virtuous—it is the life according to nature. Sophisticated living, Gray implies in the stanza that once ended the poem, finds man at war with himself and with reason; but the cool sequestered path—its goal identical with that of the paths of Glory—finds man at peace with himself and with reason. The theme was not new before Gray made it peculiarly his own, and it has become somewhat hackneyed in the last two hundred years; but the fact that it is seldom unheard in any decade testifies to its permanency of appeal, and the fact that it was "ne'er so well express'd" as in the "Elegy" justifies our love for that poem.
Links to Related Material
Gray, Thomas. “Elegy Wrote in a Country Graveyard.” London: Dodsley, 1751. The Augustan Reprint Society version edited by George Sherburn. Los Angeles: Williams Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1951. Project Gutenberg online version (see credits in headnote above). Web. 25 April 2022.
Last modified 25 April 2022