Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Thomas Gray 

            The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, 
            The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, 
            The plowman 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 tower 
10         The moping owl does to the moon complain 
             Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bower, 
            Molest her ancient solitary reign.             

            Beneath those rugged elms, that yew tree’s shade, 
            Where heaves the turf in many a mold’ring heap, 
15         Each in his narrow cell forever 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 echoing horn,
20         No 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 bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!             

            Let not Ambition mock their useful toil, 
30         Their 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 power, 
            And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, 
35         Awaits 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 through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault 
40         The pealing anthem swells the note of praise. 

            Can storied urn or animated bust 
            Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath? 
            Can Honor’s voice provoke the silent dust, 
            Or Flatt’ry soothe 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 swayed, 
            Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre. 

            But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page 
50         Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll; 
            Chill Penury repressed their noble rage, 
            And froze the genial current of the soul. 

            Full many a gem of purest ray serene, 
            The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear: 
55         Full 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, 
60         Some 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 forbade: nor circumscribed alone 
            Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined; 
            Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne, 
            And shut the gates of mercy on mankind, 

            The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide, 
70         To 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 learned to stray; 
75         Along the cool sequestered 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 rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked, 
80         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. 

            Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unlettered muse, 
            The place of fame and elegy supply: 
            And many a holy text around she strews, 
            That teach the rustic moralist to die. 

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, 
90         Some 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’ unhonored dead 
            Dost in these lines their artless tale relate; 
95        If 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 would 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 would rove, 
            Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn, 
            Or crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless love. 

            “One morn I missed him on the customed 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 through the churchway path we saw him borne. 
115      Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay, 
            Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

                    The Epitaph 

            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, 

120     And Melancholy marked him for her own. 

            Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere, 
            Heaven did a recompense as largely send: 
            He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear: 
            He gained from Heaven (’twas all he wished) a friend. 

125     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.

 

Reading Check 

a. Where is the speaker, and what time of day is it? What, according to the images in stanzas 2 and 3, does he hear? 

b. In the fourth through eighth stanzas, the speaker describes the ordinary people in the churchyard. Name the various things they will never again experience. 

c. What does the speaker imagine these humble people might have become if they’d had the chance (lines 45–60)? What do the details in lines 53–56 have to do with this idea? 

d. What did their “lot,” or place in life, forbid the poor people to experience, according to lines 61–72? 

e. What does the speaker imagine an old man (the “hoary-headed swain”) might say of him one day (lines 98–116)? 


First Thoughts 

1. What did you feel was the strongest image in this poem? Why? 

Shaping Interpretations 

2. The poet personifies ambition and grandeur in lines 29 and 31. What does he warn them not to do? What other examples of personification can you find in the poem? 

3. According to lines 77–92, what evidence on their gravestones shows that humble, ordinary people also wish to be remembered? 

4. Many readers of the “Elegy” have assumed that Gray himself is the poet whose epitaph is given in the final lines. Is it necessary to make this assumption to understand the poem? Why does the assumption seem attractive? 

5. Suppose that Gray is being autobiographical. What defense does he give of his life? Would you be happy with such an epitaph—or would you wish to be remembered differently? 

6. From Gray’s time almost to the present, many people have thought of poets as possessing the characteristics described in lines 98–112. Gray established here a stereotype that the public long accepted as genuine. Does this stereotype fit any of the poets you have studied so far in this book? (Think particularly of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, and Swift.) 

7. The poem contains at least two statements that are still frequently quoted: 

    a. "The paths of glory lead but to the grave."     (line 36) 

        b. "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
            And waste its sweetness on the desert air."     (lines 55–56) 

How do these lines relate to the poem's theme

8. In one sense, most neoclassical writers thought the purpose of literature was to convey ideas. Most Romantic writers, by contrast, thought the purpose of literature was to convey emotions. Judging by his “Elegy,” in which group do you think Gray seems to fit? 

Extending the Text

9. What ideas in this old poem still relate to our lives and feelings today? 

----

Back to the Table of Contents