“Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” – Thomas Gray
“The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” -Thomas Gray
❧Gray Early Years
Thomas Gray, a poet and literary scholar, was born on December 26, 1716 in London to Philip and Dorothy Gray. His mother gave birth to twelve children but Thomas was the only one who survived. In 1725, Dorothy separated from Philip and wither her own money sent her son to Eton College. For this reason, Thomas Gray says he is indebted to his mother for his education (Damrosch). Due to the fact that she sent him to Eton, he met his three best friends, Richard West (son of the lord chancellor of Ireland), Thomas Ashton (son of a school master) and Horace Walpole (youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole who was the prime minister). The boys formed a beautiful friendship and referred to themselves as the ‘quadruple alliance.’ They gave each other nicknames that indicated their common interest in the theater and French literature (Huber). Ashton was Almanzor from John Dryden’s Conquest of Granada; Walpole was Celadon from D’Urfé’s Astrée; West was Favonius or Zephyrus for the Latin names of the west winds; and Gray was Orosmades from Nathaniel Lee’s The Rival Queens. While in school, Gray was passionate about reading books in Greek in French and did not care for basic mathematics and philosophy (Thomas Gray). He also enjoyed studying architecture, history and botany. It was during his time at Eton College, that Gray found himself beginning to “take pleasure in reading Virgil for his own amusement, & not in school-hours, or as a task” (Baird). He gained the reputation of a Latin verse writer. In 1734, Thomas Gray left Eton and decided to attend Cambridge. He was awarded the Cosin scholarship, which required him “to wear a Square Cape, to make 6 Latin verses upon the Epistal or Gospel every Sunday morning, to chant very loud in Chapel, to wear a clean Surplice” (Baird). At Cambridge, Gray chose to study law. However, in October 1736, he left Cambridge and decided not to pursue the BA degree that would qualify him to read law at the Inner Temple (Thomas Gray).
In 1739, Gray’s long time friend Horace Walpole invited him to travel Europe with him. This was a wonderful experience and Gray was extremely grateful. The fact that Gray was able to travel Europe in the company of the prime minister’s son was a rare opportunity that not only presented educational benefits but also a wonderful excuse to postpone a career in law for a few more years (Baird).
For these reasons, Gray accepted Walpole’s invitation and the two set out on March 18, 1739 on their journey from Dover for Calais. The two friends visited an impressive amount of cities. During their voyage they spent two months in Paris where they explored illustrious churches, attended the finest operas and plays, and visited Versailles. They also traveled to Rheims where they focused on improving their French and to Geneva in order to spend some time at the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse. In addition, as they were crossing the Alps, Gray dedicated his attention toward reading Livy’s account of Hannibal’s army making the same journey through the Alps that he and Walpole were making. The literary scholar also read Silius Italicus’s poetical rendition of the same mountainous crossing (Baird).
After passing through Turin, Genoa, Piacenza, Parma, Reggio, and Modena to Bologna, the two friends arrived in Florence. There they decided to spend the winter months enveloping themselves “in Florentine society and Horace Mann’s art collections” (Baird). In March 1740,Gray and Walpole traveled to Rome after hearing about Pope Clement XII’s death (Huber). They hoped to see a papal election but were disappointed with how slowly the papal conclave was proceeding and therefore decided to continue to Naples. In Naples, Gray and Walpole were able to explore the recent excavations at Herculaneum. Gray described the experience, “as you walk you see parts of an amphitheater, many houses adorned with marble columns, and encrusted with the same; the front of a temple, several arched vaults of rooms painted in fresco” (qtd Baird). It was also during this tour of Europe that Gray also came across a philosophical poem in Latin hexameters entitled ‘De principiis cogitandi.’ This poem mesmerized Gray. Since he was aware of the “challenge which Lockean epistemology presented to traditional poetics, [he] undertook ‘De principiis’ to reconcile philosophy and creativity” (Baird). However, after completing the first book, Gray deserted the project because he felt as though he had accomplished what he needed to in to maintain his prospective artistic development. In 1741, Gray and Walpole left Florence and headed toward Venice. On the way to the magnificent city, the two friends had an intense quarrel and decided to travel separately for the remainder of the trip (Baird).
Although his trip with Walpole did not end as anticipated, Gray decided to go on another tour of Europe in 1738. This time, Gray chose to study on his voyage through France and the Alps. He studied Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars called the De Bello Gallico (Huber). During the time he spent in France, Gray developed an appreciation for the French classic drama, particularly with Racine. In 1740, Gray crossed the Alps and made his way into Florence, Italy. It is there that he spent the spring with the British minister, Horace Mann. During this time, Gray also worked on his longest, yet unfinished, work, De principiis cogitandi. The European expeditions that Gray went on, taught him a lot about a variety of subjects. Even modern art and literature interested him although he never wanted to pursue them as a career (Baird).
❧ Later Years
In the Spring of 1742, Thomas Gray and Richard West discussed their literary interests via letters. They corresponded about Tacitus as well as Henry Fieldings’s novel, Jospeh Andrews. It is in one of these messages that West sent a poem to Gray. In response to his friend’s poem, Gray wrote his first English poem entitled, “Ode on the Spring (Huber).” Unfortunately, West never read the poem because he died on June 1, 1742. In the same year, Gray visited his family in a town called Buckinghamshire (Huber). He was inspired by the scenic country side and was overwhelmed with creativity. However, not long after the death of his friend, Gray found out that his father also died. Such devastating events “opened Gray’s eyes up the fragility of human life and its moral requirements” (Baird). Hence, he decided that a career as a proctor in the Doctors’ Commons was his true calling. In autumn of 1742, Gray returned to Cambridge. Although Gray found the university at Cambridge “dull, lazy and a boorish institution, [it] had two powerful attracts; the ability to live as a gentlemand on a limited income, and indulge his passion for learning” (Baird). For this reason, Gray decided to live in Cambridge until his death on July 30, 1771 (Baird).
Memorial to Thomas Gray, located at Strokes Poges.
“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is thought to have
been written in Stoke Poges. Today, there is a grotesque
monument to Thomas Gray right outside St. Giles church.
The Poetical Works of Thomas Gray was published in 1856 in London.
❧Background of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”
“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is one of Gray’s most famous poems. Gray started writing the poem in 1742 and he worked on it for five years. He published it in 1751 and it proved to be an instant success. His use of the word “elegy” in the title hints at the somber and melancholy tone that flows throughout the poem. By definition, an elegy is “a mournful, melancholy or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead” (qtd Baird). The word is very appropriate since it is about someone’s death. However, Gray approaches the subject from a different perspective. Instead of simply focusing on the loss and sorrowful feelings that are typically associated with death, the poet reflects on the significance of life and all of the individuals who are buried in the cemetery. Gray’s poem is considered lyrical because often it is sung rather than read. Throughout each stanza, the poem conveys a multitude of powerful feelings that are associated with life as well as death. In fact, there is reason to believe that the cemetery that is described in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is actually the one where he is buried, in his hometown of Buckinghamshire (Baird).
❧Summary of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”
In the very beginning of this poem, we get a very somber feeling. We hear sounds like the knell of a bell. The first couple of stanzas imply that there is a funeral taking place but it is not until the fourth stanza that Gray writes about the graves using the word “narrow cell.” Gray continues to explain how the people buried or the “forefathers” will never live again. He then writes all the things the dead will never be able to take part in. This is seen in stanza six where he writes that children will no longer run to sit on the persons lap. Gray then explores the contrasts between the wealthy and the poor. He says that the wealthy should not look down on the poor just because they are poor. Instead, Gray reminds his readers that we are all bound to die no matter how rich or poor that we may be. He writes to not mock the poor and their appreciation for the little things in life. He believes that once you are dead the wealth you have can not bring you back to life and in result means nothing. Gray also explores the idea that someone buried in the graveyard may have been a very intelligent person, but did not have the means of sharing their talents with the world because of their lack of wealth. He pities the fact that these “gems” went unnoticed. Gray continues to remind his readers to remember the dead as the dead long to be remembered. Soon, Gray begins to wonder what people will say about him when he dies and hopes it would be good things. He wants to be remembered as a genuine man. He does not want to be remembered as a great man; just a simple man that was able to enjoy life. Gray begins to tell a story within this poem. It begins with an older man noticing that Gray is sitting near a stream everyday. Gray wanted to be seen in one particular spot; therefore, when he was not there someone would notice. A few days later the old man notices that Gray has been missing from his usual spot. On the third day, this man sees a funeral procession, which he assumes, is for Gray. The old man then has his friend read Gray’s epitaph on his tombstone. The last three stanzas of Gray’s poem are actually Gray’s epitaph. Reading the epitaph, the old man is now able to understand what has happened and that the man he used to see there has passed away. Gray says “a youth to fortune and to fame unknown,” “His soul sincere,” proves to the reader that he was a humble person and focused on leading a happy life of self-wealth. The epitaph reads how Gray wishes to be remembered. It says that a humble man lies beneath the ground, which may have become well educated and famous but only hopes to be remembered for the simple life he led. Gray also writes that he does not want anyone to judge him on earth because now that he has passed away, God is the only one who can pass judgment on his life. Gray also mentions that he came from Heaven and is going to go back to Heaven after his death because of his humility. Finally, we can understand that the man is going to be back with God where he was created and can rest peacefully.
❧Themes of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Death- This is one of the most prominent themes in the entire poem. Gray reminds us constantly that no matter who we are, rich or poor, no one is able to escape death. Eventually we will all die and the material items we have in the human life will have little importance once we die. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” This line especially reinforces the idea that we all will die no matter how hard we avoid it (Cummings).
Missed Opportunities- This is another theme that Gray reiterates multiple times throughout his poem. Gray makes a point to ponder the idea of all the people who may have been capable of great things but did not have the means or opportunity due to certain circumstances in their life. They may not have had the education to get to where they could do great things. Gray writes about the “gems” who have been wasted because they were not given the same chances of the wealthy. Gray wonders if the next famous musician or politician may be buried undiscovered in the graveyard (Cummings).
Wealth– This is something that Gray brings up a lot in this piece because he wants to be remembered as a “wealthy man.” He does not mean this in the sense of money but wealthy with experiences and appreciation for life.
Self Worth– This is something that is seen throughout the piece because Gray is concerned with how people would remember him when he has passed away. He says that he needs to be remembered as humble once his body is underground.
Virtue– This is another theme that is seen in the poem because of the the talk about how other people in farther away places led better lives that he did. That there are villagers that are living more prosperously that he did. The lines that are the most relevant to this theme are 73-76 . He talked about the their “sober wishes that never learned to stray,” meaning that they were able to fulfill their desires (Cummings).
|Thomas Gray’s Epitaph|
Below is a copy of Gray’s poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” For more information, click on the highlighted words/phrases for further explanation on the poem and its context.
ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCH-YARD
The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page ,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation’s eyes,
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.
Yet e’en these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
For who, to dumb forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
E’en from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
E’en in our ashes live their wonted fires.
Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away,
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn;
‘There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high.
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.
‘Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove;
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or crazed with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.
‘The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne,-
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay
Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.’
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
And Melacholy marked him for her own.
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.
No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode
(There they alike in trembling hope repose),
The bosom of his Father and his God.
To listen to entire poem along with the text click the video below or click here
1) Baird, John D.’Gray, Thomas (1716-1771)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/11356,] accessed 21 April 2010.
2) Cummings, Micheal J. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. 2003. Web. 18 May 2010. <http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/ThoGray.html>
3) Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard- Poem Summary. < http://www.answers.com/topic/elegy-written-in-a-country-churchyard-poem-3>
4) Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Summary and Study Guide.< http://www.enotes.com/elegy-written>
5) Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Video Clip. < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pr97KeBFNDY&feature=related>
6) Gray, Thomas. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” British Literature: The Restoration and The Eighteenth Century. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J.J. Dettmar. 3rd ed. Persons Education Inc: Longman, 2006. 2854-57.
7) Huber, Alexander. “The Thomas Gray Archive”. University of Oxford. May 13, 2010. < http://www.thomasgray.org/cgi-bin/display.cgi?text=elcc>
8) Jokinen, Anniina. Thomas Gray. 14 November 2008.<http://www.luminarium.org/eightlit/gray/graybio.php>
9) Memorial Of Thomas Gray’s grave. <https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/2892342485_553c1906a9_m.jpg>
10) Poetical Works of Thomas Gray. <https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/gray.jpg>
11) Portrait of Thomas Gray. < http://www.nndb.com/people/410/000087149/>.
12) Thomas Gray’s Epitaph- < https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/Thomas-Gray-Epitath2Bimage.jpg>
13) Thomas Gray-Poems. <http://www.poemofquotes.com/thomasgray/>
Danielle Ferrari, Yuliya Voytovich, and Natalie Carillo