Seamus Cooney

An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Thomas Gray, 1750

[This text attempts to reproduce the appearance of an 18th century printing of the poem (apart from the line numbers, of course). The original spelling text and the questions and comments that follow are from Hugh Kenner, The Art of Poetry (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1961).]

The Curfeu tolls the Knell of parting Day,
The lowing Herd winds slowly o'er the Lea,
The Plow-man homeward plods his weary Way,
And leaves the World to Darkness, and to me.
5 Now fades the glimmering Landscape on the Sight,
And all the Air a solemn Stillness holds;
Save where the Beetle wheels his droning Flight,
And drowsy Tinklings lull the distant Folds.
Save that from yonder Ivy-mantled Tow'r
10 The mopeing Owl does to the Moon complain
Of such as, wand'ring near her secret Bow'r,
Molest her ancient solitary Reign.
Beneath those rugged Elms, that Yew-Tree's Shade,
Where heaves the Turf in many a mould'ring Heap,
15Each in his narrow Cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the Hamlet sleep.
The breezy Call of Incense-breathing Morn,
The Swallow twitt'ring from the Straw-built Shed,
The Cock's shrill Clarion, or the ecchoing Horn,
20No more shall rouse them from their lowly Bed.
For them no more the blazing Hearth shall burn,
Or busy Housewife ply her Evening Care:
No Children run to lisp their Sire's Return,
Or climb his Knees the envied Kiss to share.
25 Oft did the Harvest to their Sickle yield,
Their Furrow oft the stubborn Glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their Team afield!
How bow'd the Woods beneath their sturdy Stroke!
Let not Ambition mock their useful Toil,
30Their homely Joys and Destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful Smile,
The short and simple Annals of the Poor.
The Boast of Heraldry, the Pomp of Pow'r,
And all that Beauty, all that Wealth e'er gave,
35Awaits alike th'inevitable hour.
The Paths of Glory lead but to the Grave.
Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the Fault,
If Mem'ry o'er their Tomb no Trophies raise,
Where thro' the long-drawn Isle and fretted Vault
40The pealing Anthem swells the Note of Praise.
Can storied Urn or animated Bust
Back to its Mansion call the fleeting Breath?
Can Honour's Voice provoke the silent Dust,
Or Flatt'ry sooth the dull cold Ear of Death?
45 Perhaps in this neglected Spot is laid
Some Heart once pregnant with celestial Fire,
Hands that the Rod of Empire might have sway'd,
Or wak'd to Extacy the living Lyre.
But Knowledge to their Eyes her ample Page
50Rich 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:
55Full many a Flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its Sweetness on the desert Air.
Some Village-Hampden that with dauntless Breast
The little Tyrant of his Fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
60Some Cromwell guiltless of his Country's Blood.
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 Hist'ry in a Nation's Eyes
65 Their Lot forbad: nor circumscrib'd alone
Their growing Virtues, but their Crimes confin'd;
Forbad to wade through Slaughter to a Throne,
And shut the Gates of Mercy on Mankind,
The struggling Pangs of conscious Truth to hide,
70To quench the Blushes of ingenuous Shame,
Or heap the Shrine of Luxury and Pride
With Incense, kindled at the Muse's Flame.
Far from the madding Crowd's ignoble Strife,
Their sober Wishes never learn'd to stray;
75Along the cool sequester'd Vale of Life
They kept the noiseless Tenor of their Way.
Yet ev'n these Bones from Insult to protect
Some frail Memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth Rhimes and shapeless Sculpture deck'd,
80Implores the passing Tribute of a Sigh.
Their Name, their Years, spelt by th'unletter'd Muse,
The place of Fame and Elegy supply:
And many a holy Text around she strews,
That teach the rustic Moralist to dye.
85 For who to dumb Forgetfulness a Prey,
This pleasing anxious Being e'er resigned,
Left the warm Precincts of the cheerful Day,
Nor cast one longing ling'ring Look behind?
On some fond Breast the parting Soul relies,
90Some pious Drops the closing Eye requires;
Ev'n from the Tomb the Voice of Nature cries,
Ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires.
For thee, who mindful of th'unhonoured Dead
Dost in these lines their artless Tale relate;
95If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,
Some kindred Spirit shall inquire thy Fate,
Haply some hoary-headed Swain may say,
'Oft have we seen him at the Peep of Dawn
'Brushing with hasty Steps the Dews away
100'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 wou'd he stretch,
'And pore upon the Brook that babbles by.
105 'Hard by yon Wood, now smiling as in Scorn,
'Mutt'ring his wayward Fancies he wou'd rove,
'Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
'Or craz'd with Care, or cross'd in hopeless Love.
'One Morn I miss'd him on the custom'd Hill,
110'Along the Heath, and near his fav'rite Tree;
'Another came; nor yet beside the Rill,
'Nor up the Lawn, nor at the Wood was he.
'The next with Dirges due in sad Array
'Slow thro' the Church-way Path we saw him born.
115'Approach and read (for thou can'st read) the Lay,
'Grav'd on the Stone beneath yon aged Thorn.'
(There scatter'd oft, the earliest of the Year,
By Hands unseen, are Show'rs of Violets found:
The Red-breast loves to bill and warble there,
120And little Footsteps lightly print the Ground.)
Here rests his Head upon the Lap of Earth
A Youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown:
Fair Science frown'd not on his humble Birth,
And Melancholy mark'd him for her own.
Large was his Bounty, and his Soul sincere,
Heav'n did a Recompence as largely send:
He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a Tear:
He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a Friend.
No farther seek his Merits to disclose,
Or draw his Frail ties from their dread Abode,
(There they alike in trembling Hope repose)
The Bosom of his Father and his God.

39. isle: aisle
123. Science: systematic knowledge.

  • In view of the systematic capitalization and the care with which the sentences are fitted into the stanzas, do you think the title is meant to be taken literally? Or is it part of the fiction Gray is creating?

  • What other details in the first twelve lines are frankly arranged and simplified? Are the Beetle, the Owl, and so on, to be thought of as phenomena noted in a particular churchyard on a specific occasion?

  • Every noun is capitalized. What effect has this on the degree of generality at which Gray is aiming?

  • The capitalization of nouns, still mandatory in modern German, was a printers' custom in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but a custom somewhat haphazardly observed. It lent an air of naturalness to the eighteenth-century habit of generalization and unobtrusive personification. "Ambition" (line 29) is a little more than an abstract noun: it governs an active verb. Are we meant to visualize it?

  • In this poem the unusual care with details of printing and punctuation marks Gray as belonging to the first generation to expend pains on the way the poem looks on the printed page. Printing is no longer simply a guide to oral recitation; the poem is conceived as being in a book, and meant to be looked at. The title draws attention to the fact that we have before us a piece of writing, not a transcription of what somebody is supposed to have said or thought.

  • Milton's Il Penseroso, another meditation-piece written about 120 years before Gray's Elegy, begins "Hence, vain deluding Joys"; its convention is of a man speaking; the poem is meant to sound improvised.

  • Are any of Gray's meditations especially new? Is there any pretense that they are? Is this the improvisation of a specific occasion? Or a long-meditated compendium of reliable sentiments?

  • How often does he return from his reflections to the churchyard locale? What is the effect secured by these returns?

  • What are "these lines" (line 94)? The village inscription of line 79, or the poem before us? Is the distinction between them meant to be inexact?

  • Note that the "mute inglorious Milton" of line 59 doesn't die wholly frustrated; beginning at line 98, he or someone like him turns into a pastoral poet, whose death is formally lamented, and who has a more satisfactory interment than Edward King had in Milton's Lycidas (page 291).

  • What quality in this poem has caused so much of it to enter the world's stock of familiar quotations?

  • Return to index of poems.