Suvir Kaul

about the attributes of the "common reader," as also about the proper role of poetry and of the poet in eighteenth-century English culture and society, its explorations of such ideas become more open-ended and inclusive than the more culturally assured and polished forms of neoclassical poetics. We can thus read, embodied in the idiom and formal elements of the Elegy, a poetics appropriate to an English readership that crosses social classes and locations; in fact, the poem even features various figures of the unlettered, so much so that it seems to address those who cannot read as much as those who can. Further, the Elegy struggles to imagine a contemporary world in which it might successfully communicate existential or ethical or political lessons, and in doing so explores both the possibilities and the limits of the practice of poetry per se.

Modern editors of the Elegy are divided over the exact period of its composition: some evidence suggests that a section of it was written in 1742, one version is likely to have been written in 1745—6, and a different version, the one published and commonly reprinted since, was completed in 1750 (Lonsdale 1969: 103—10). Gray was dilatory in all his intellectual projects, but this convoluted process of composition might also be understood with reference to the complex and even contradictory themes and concerns he explores. Of particular interest to us is the fact that the second version is arguably a finished poem, but in the final version Gray chose to discard its last four stanzas in favor of a longer meditation upon the power of poetry to preserve into cultural memory people and events. (The discarded stanzas do recognize that the poem, which is "mindful of the unhonour'd Dead" whose "artless Tale" it relates, also functions as a memorial, but their primary concern is to suggest an existential and a Christian conclusion: all must pass through the "cool sequester'd Vale of Life" to their "Doom," but a sensitive poet can find consolation in that he might hear, in the "sacred Calm" of the church graveyard, "In still small Accents, whisp'ring from the Ground / A grateful Earnest of eternal Peace.") In the final version, this meditation is rendered personal and poignant as it develops alongside a vignette of an isolated poet who is not one of the village community, but is often seen by them wandering listlessly ("Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn," l. 107), and who dwindles to an untimely death. The Elegy closes with his epitaph, which we learn is engraved upon his gravestone.

That, in sum, is the poem; but compressed into its quatrains is an extraordinary density of intertextual reference, allusions to epochal historical events and persons of national significance, as well as invocations of lives lived within village communities, lives that never come to more public attention. Further, the poem works its way through several poetic conventions developed by poets who linked public and private themes, almost as if to test the staying power of such conventions in historical conditions different from those in which they originated or those in which they became recognizable staples of poetic practice. For instance, the opening vignette of the poem is largely familiar — the poet at rest in a bucolic landscape, composing his poem while he looks on a scene of easy agricultural labor and peaceful cattle or sheep grazing, with the sun on high — but with a crucial difference. The Elegy opens in a twilight landscape which contains, for a brief moment, both the ploughman on his "weary way"

home (l. 3) as well as the poet; but this does not so much allow a moment of identity between these two figures as confirm their vocational difference. The ploughman's work is done, the poet's now begins, and his is the work of articulating a poetic form, and an idiom, supple enough to engage both the world of labor and the realm of letters. Indeed, the poet's work is the finished form of the poem, and seductive as it might be to imagine an affinity of labor with the ploughman and others like him who are the subjects of the opening section of the Elegy, the poet recognizes that his labor is different from theirs. Further, some crucial — and alienating — forms of this difference surface in the halting movement of the poem toward its funereal conclusion. In this way, the Elegy enacts its variation on both pastoral and topographical verse, variations that seem motivated, in large part, by a pronounced sense of poetic isolation and vocational difference from the "proper" subjects of such poetry. (This is an idea that we will see developed through the poem, and in this argument.)

But it is not only formal conventions that are explored or modified in the Elegy: shortly after it was published, contemporaries of Gray began to comment on what they understood to be the moments of "imitation" in the poem — phrases, images, even lines that echoed the work of earlier poets. Roger Lonsdale's remarkable editorial efforts have made available much of this commentary, and he has added to this considerable list himself. For instance, the opening line, "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day," condenses lines in Dante's Purgatorio (viii. 5—6) in which chimes "seem to mourn for the dying day," with the Anglo-Norman specificity of the curfew, which, ever since William the Conqueror had dictated that bells should mark the end of the day, had become synonymous with the fading of the evening and the coming of darkness. Lonsdale also points out that the link between the tolling of bells, the loss of light, the emptying of a populated landscape leaving only the poet, and the death of loved ones signified by "knell," or some combination of these elements, is to be found in Dante's Inferno, Shakespeare's Henry IV, Milton's "Il Penseroso," Dryden's "Prologue" to Troilus and Cressida, James Thomson's Liberty, Edward Young's Night Thoughts, and William Collins's "Ode to Evening" (Lonsdale 1969: 117). This list can be added to; suffice to note that Gray's vocabulary and method in this poem (and indeed in all his poetry) reflect his extensive reading and scholarly immersion in the history of poetry. What results is an echo-chamber of a poem, a poem so dense with, and overdetermined by, poetic memory that its every moment might be understood as an informed meditation on the way the idiom of poetry has been crafted from, and has in return enriched, the common language.

It is possible to argue that this is one reason why the Elegy achieved the popularity it did — for to read it is to be provided with a lesson in several of the crucial linguistic and formal features that have, with repetition and time, come to constitute the difference between poetic and common, that is, prosaic usage. (I should make clear that I am not claiming a single consensual standard of common non-poetic usage, but am contrasting the schooled forms of prose with the equally schooled forms of poetry.) In this argument, Gray's poem is the sieve that sifts the nuggets of English (and, to a lesser extent, European) poetry and, in an act of poetic virtuosity, preserves them even as it transmutes them into the unique filigree that is the Elegy. The proper location of the Elegy, then, is not so much within topography — a country churchyard — as within poetics; it is composed within the landscapes and locations poetic practices have rendered both vital and conventional. I will not here enlarge on the compendium of allusions and echoes that enliven the first four lines of the poem (Lonsdale's scholarship is a full guide to such details), but quote them here, to be read in the light of the discussion above:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

The sense of loss and isolation produced by the first quatrain can thus be understood not only as the effect of day turning into night, and of the poet left on his own once ploughmen and even herds of cattle have returned home, but also as a product of a heightened consciousness that seems to know that the very language of bells, twilight, lowing herds, and an empty landscape is at once the stuff of poetry as well as symptomatic of the larger isolations of poetic practice. Poetic conventions and the ways of seeing they encourage or impose are both enabling and stultifying: the intensity of feeling here thus derives from the accumulations of an interwoven history of similar poetic practices as much as it does from any experiences or feelings that the Elegy seeks to individuate.

There is another important way in which we might contextualize the sense of loss with which the poem opens. We have so far described this sense as the experience of a poet so steeped in the conventional languages of poetry that he works with an enervated appreciation of their contemporary or local possibilities. There is also of course the more literal interpretation, which is that these are the maudlin thoughts of a poet confronted with the markers of death that are gravestones in a country churchyard. However, we need also to remember that Gray is here also exploiting the prospect poem, so much in vogue in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English poetry, in which the poet looks down from a height and celebrates a seamlessly hierarchical society, one in which nature, like the peasantry that works it, and the masters who own it, are arranged in harmonious order. Further, the prospect poem allowed poets to look beyond the horizon, as it were, and see across the borders of the island-state into a world that they were happy to represent in similar terms, as obeying the dictates of an increasingly powerful mercantilist and colonial Britain. Gray's lines refuse all such vision, and thus also any comfortable vocational understanding of the poet as celebrant of elite social or nationalist values; indeed, as the "glimmering landscape" turns dark, vision is no longer the poet's primary faculty of perception, and his sense of his surroundings is sharpened by the sounds of a rural evening — droning beetles, the "drowsy tinklings" of distant cattle-bells, and a lone "moping owl" (ll. 5—12).

This shift from the visual to the aural sense suggests a deprivation as well as a new sensitivity, and the failing light prepares us for the inwardness, the moments of contemplative insight, that follow, in which the poet begins to develop the central ethical contrasts that structure the next section of the Elegy. The poet can no longer see clearly, but knows of — and feels as a palpable presence — the village graveyard. In this quatrain, the iconography made familiar in graveyard and elegiac poems, several of which were published to considerable public notice in the first half of the 1740s (two examples are Robert Blair's The Grave [1743] and Edward Young's The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality [1742—5]) frames the scene: "rugged elms," the shade of a "yew-tree," the "many a mouldering heap" that are the old graves (ll. 13—14). Here, "Each in his narrow cell for ever laid, / The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep" (ll. 15—16). Oddly, this account of the death of villagers is a prelude to the evocation of the life of the village (even though this vitality is realized precisely while noting its passing, as signaled in the repeated "No more"):

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.

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.

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!

What are we to make of Gray's attempt to portray country life in these idealized communal and organic terms, all the while mourning its passing? Are we to read this passage as an existential meditation on life and death, here incidentally located in the countryside, or is there in fact a historical lesson about transitions in rural English society encoded in these lines? Historians have catalogued important shifts in patterns of rural farming and social organization in eighteenth-century England (many of which followed upon enclosure and the capitalization of agriculture) whose most visible manifestations were the dispossession and decay of small, already impoverished, village communities. While social historians have not turned to Gray's poetry for evidence of such transitions (whose locus classicus is Oliver Goldsmith's later poem The Deserted Village), it is unlikely that the tone of melancholy that pervades the Elegy is entirely insulated from these historical events. Ironically, one way to think about the connections between the poet and the rural community whose passing he mourns might be to reflect not so much upon his advocacy of its virtues as upon his isolation from it; as John Barrell has written, the easy contrast between the "singular, plodding, and weary" ploughman of the opening stanza and the "jocund" dead ploughmen of line 27 emphasizes the poet's lack of knowledge of any contemporary peasant community. Further, if the poet suggests in this passage any connection with this community in the past, it is only "because he is at liberty to recreate that community on his own terms, just as he wants it to be" (Barrell 1980: 158). Most poets who wrote on rural affairs forged such nostalgic imagined communities — past and present — in their poems; the consequential question here is: What purpose is served in the Elegy by this depiction of the diurnal rhythms and daily rituals of village life as a lost world, alive only in the poet's re-creation?

Two adjectival phrases in these lines point us toward the contrasts to come: the "rude Forefathers" of line 16 and the "lowly bed" of line 20 specify that the vitality of these lives is meant to be a direct function of their uncultured simplicity and their social class. Their sturdy happiness, described here in a catalog of village smells and sounds, family activities, and cheerful agricultural labor, is then set against a series of personified abstractions:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil, Their homely joys and destiny obscure; Nor Grandeur hear, with a disdainful smile, The short and simple annals of the poor.

Both "Ambition" and "Grandeur" are imagined as potentially contemptuous of the lives of these villagers; or, more precisely, they are imagined to be disdainful of the "annals of the poor," which we might presume are largely non-existent — except in the brief details of this poem, of course, which makes the poet of the Elegy the annalist of the otherwise unsung lives of the rural poor. His stanzas so far have in fact registered "their useful toil, / Their homely joys and destiny obscure," and thus are themselves the "short and simple annals" offered in tribute to such lives.

The poet as annalist, as memorialist of unheralded lives — this is a vocational definition, however indirectly arrived at. This figuration of poetic practice seeks to locate the poet within the simple village society that he describes, but from which he is — crucially — set apart. The poet who writes of this community, and who would speak for it, is separated from its members by his status as an outsider (a visitor from the city, perhaps) who belongs to a different class, and who is lettered where the villagers are illiterate. These distinctions remain, no matter that the poet, in speaking on behalf of village lives, offers his moral critique of ambition and vainglory — the ways of the rich and famous — by pointing out that all paths lead alike to the grave. Again, the stanzas that follow focus not so much on the fact that death is the great equalizer, but on the fact that the monuments to ambition and power erected by the "Proud" are no protection against "the inevitable hour":

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave, Awaits alike the inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault, If Memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise, Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault The 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 Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Nothing preserves against death, these lines argue; does this not mean that all memorials — cathedral services, elaborate tombs and gravestones, statuary, panegyric — are equally pointless? No "trophies" are raised over the graves of the rural poor, but there is nothing to be gained from the elaborate memorials of the rich and powerful: the manifest irony of an "animated" memorial bust, while the original molders as "silent dust," offers pointed and emphatic testimonial to the poet's observations.

Where does this leave the poet, annalist of the rural poor, of whom he is not a part; critic of the memorial practices of the rich and important, from whom he is distanced by the force of his critique? Uncertain of his role and function, perhaps, or, more accurately, searching for a rhetorical position from which both the memorial and the critical functions of poetry can be credibly exercised. In a poet as schooled in the conventions of poetry as Gray this self-consciousness is not surprising; but it might also be thought of as generic. As Thomas Edwards suggests, "An elegy is of course a poem about death itself, but it is also a demonstration of how death is best observed and commemorated — no literary elegy is ever without a certain reflexive consciousness of its own status as memorial object" (Edwards 1971: 126—7). The social dimension of such generic consciousness — at least along one axis — becomes clear if we keep in mind Joshua Scodel's observations on eighteenth-century "paternalistic epitaphs" that commemorate the "simple, generic virtues of such lowly creatures as contented laborers and devoted servants":

Though they celebrate a realm of supposedly uncontested social values, such epitaphs are in fact nostalgic responses to, and participants in, vast and unsettling social change. In the face of the mounting tension between classes that accompanied the onset of capitalist relations, epitaphs upon exemplary members of the lower orders, or upon animals such as faithful dogs that could represent the lower orders, attempt to demonstrate in a radically new way the enduring mutual affection of high and low.

At stake, as Scodel puts it, is the "social role of the dead" (Scodel 1991: 10).

If this is in part the ideological function of the Elegy's lines on the lives and deaths of villagers — the positing of a world of "supposedly uncontested social relations," one conceived in a nostalgia that stems from an awareness of "unsettling social change" — then what is to be made of the poem's critique of (presumably urban and) upper-class hubris? Before we answer that question, it is important to linger on those lines in the poem, particularly the last quatrain of those quoted below, which have lingered most forcefully in public memory, and indeed have taken on a life of their own:

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 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: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

William Empson's comments on the last stanza trenchantly articulate his more general irritation at "the complacence in the massive calm of the poem"; he argues that these lines, "as the context makes clear," are a complaint that eighteenth-century England had no scholarship system. . . . This is stated as pathetic, but the reader is put into a mood in which one would not try to alter it. . . . By comparing the social arrangement to Nature [Gray] makes it seem inevitable, which it was not, and gives it a dignity which was undeserved. (Empson 1979: 4)

These stanzas seem to bemoan the lack of a mechanism of social mobility that might allow rural talent to achieve public success, and thus allow villagers to turn into great imperialists or composers or poets. And yet "Knowledge," presumably indispensable in the training of rulers or artists, is here figured as a species of plunderer, "Rich with the spoils of time." Lonsdale compares this line to both Browne ("Rich with the spoils of nature," Religio Medici, i. xiii) and Dryden ("For, rich with Spoils of many a conquer'd Land," "Palamon and Arcite," ii. 452), and this configuration of images allows us to chart the peculiar ambivalence of Gray's usage: on the one hand a lack of knowledge prevents the country poor from becoming the great; on the other, Knowledge is figured in the precise terms that make the great ethically and socially suspect. Knowledge is here one in the series of overbearing abstractions - Ambition,

Grandeur, ye Proud, Honour, Flattery — that are presented as the moral antitheses of the simple lives of the villagers.

And then there is the gem "of purest ray serene" that is presumed to lie unseen in the "dark unfathomed caves of ocean," and the flowers that are "born to blush unseen, / And waste [their] sweetness on the desert air." (We might note the interesting catachrestic play in these lines, where organic nature and commodity are rendered interchangeable: the flower is seen to "waste" its sweetness if it blooms without admirers — as opposed to growing and decaying as part of an organic cycle — and the gem is seen to possess immanent value without being a commodity, that is, without circulating within the market processes that in fact endow gems with their value.) Empson is unsparing in his reading of the effect of comparing these "natural treasures" to the lives of the rural poor:

a gem does not mind being in a cave and a flower prefers not to be picked; we feel like the man is like the flower, as short-lived, natural, and valuable, and this tricks us into feeling that he is better off without opportunities. The sexual suggestion of blush brings in the Christian idea that virginity is good in itself, and so that any renunciation is good; this may trick us into feeling that it is lucky for the poor man that society keeps him unspotted from the World. The tone of melancholy claims that the poet understands the considerations opposed to aristocracy, though he judges against them; the truism of the reflections in the churchyard, the universality and impersonality this gives to the style, claim as if by comparison that we ought to accept the injustice of society as we do the inevitability of death. (Empson 1979: 5)

We can now add Empson's reading to our understanding of the melancholy affect of the Elegy: the poem's tone is both defense against, and moral commentary on, the aggressive, self-aggrandizing personifications of aristocratic pretension. Similarly, the truisms and universalisms the poem features are not simply rhetorical forms that enact poetic calm in the face of death, but are in fact necessary to disavow its recognition of social and economic differences. Another way to state this is to say that the Elegy fuses, simply and memorably, existential resignation and social passivity, and does so precisely by developing a sustained critique not so much of upper-class wealth as of the vainglory enabled by that wealth. This combination of social acquiescence and moral critique generates the poem's incorporative ideological power: lost village communities are mourned, their idealized simplicity and vitality set against the immoral and boastful corruptions of the "Proud," and the rhetorical power with which this ethical opposition is developed forecloses the need to consider other ways in which the socio-cultural elevation of the rich might be connected to the material and cultural dispossession of the rural poor.

While the dominant tone of the Elegy is set by its meditations upon human transience and the small compensations of fortitude, it is not empty of more direct historical and socio-political reference. Lines 57—60 invoke three figures whose lives and careers were linked during the tumultuous Civil War period in English history:

Hampden, Milton, and Cromwell. Each of these figures is seen as representative of the public profile that follows from participation in — and leadership of — affairs of national consequence; but here they are invoked to emphasize, via negation, the socially destructive acts that the rural poor are saved from performing. Their "lot" denies these villagers opportunities and circumscribes their "growing virtues," but also confines their "crimes" by forbidding them "to wade through slaughter to a throne, / And shut the gates of mercy on mankind" (ll. 65—8). Presumably, Cromwell (rather than the fairly innocuous parliamentarian Hampden) is an appropriate subject for such condemnation, and perhaps the invocation of Milton — the odd man out here — is justified by the following reference to poets who "heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride / With incense kindled at the Muse's flame" (ll. 71—2). However, the general and even vague terms — in keeping with the method of the poem — in which Hampden, Milton, and Cromwell are described as being exemplary of those whose lives deny "conscious truth" and repress "ingenuous shame" (ll. 69—70) do not so much allow the Elegy historical purchase and specificity as much as dissolve particular reference into the abstraction of moral universalisms. Thus, the stanza that follows returns to a familiar opposition: not one that develops the contrast between personalities prominent during the Civil War and the common people then, but the oft-repeated, indeed formulaic, contrast between city and country ways, between the "ignoble strife" of "the madding crowd" and the "noiseless tenor" of the lives of the villagers (ll. 73—6).

This return to the "cool sequestered vale of life" (l. 75) is also a return to the country churchyard, with its gravestones, each a rudimentary memorial, "With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked," that "Implores the passing tribute of a sigh" (ll. 77—80). (In line 75, the word "sequestered," which describes the "vale of life" within which the villagers live, suggests not only seclusion but also forcible dispossession. Parliamentary, judicial, and clerical records offer many instances of people dispossessed from their livings, but this is not a suggestion developed by the poem.) In these lines, the poem also reprises two of its central themes, those of commemoration and of literacy. The "uncouth rhymes" are carved by an "unlettered muse" in "place of fame and elegy," but their moral purpose, if not their polish, is unexceptionable: unlike the memorial monuments of the rich, these function properly as the "holy text" that teaches "the rustic moralist to die" (ll. 81—4). This is, of course, a somewhat fraught claim to make in an elegy, for it disavows the form even as it performs it, and the complexity — the contradiction — of the poet's thought is intensified by the lines that follow. The contrast is now between literate and illiterate, "cultured" and "uncultured," artificial and "artless" modes of remembrance (l. 94) — or, more to the point, between poetic and communal forms, understood as mutually incompatible. The way to survive "dumb Forgetfulness" is for the dying to live on in "some fond breast," or in the tears, the "pious drops," that sorrowfully mark a passing. To die within a community that mourns and remembers is to let "the voice of nature" speak even "from the tomb"; it is the way to preserve, phoenix-like, the "wonted fires" of life even in "our ashes" (ll. 89—92). Formal elegies that are read are of no memorial or moral use here; the shared sorrows and memories of the community preserve and authenticate lives in ways prior to, and better than, the celebrated forms of public fame and elegiac practice.

Having arrived at this crux, the poem turns self-reflexive, making the poet its subject. He now thinks of his own death — and of his epitaph — but his sense of poetic self is derived from his practices in this poem, where he, "mindful of the unhonoured dead" (those interred in the country churchyard), has "in these lines" related "their artless tale" (ll. 93—4). The village tale he has told might be "artless" (the word itself perhaps a curious and sad attempt to mediate between the "uncouth rhymes" of the "rustic moralist" and the hyper-literate practices of elegy), but his artifice, his poetry, is precisely a confirmation of his isolation from this rural community. And this is in fact the final image of himself that he offers, as he imagines a "kindred spirit" (another city visitor, perhaps) coming to the village to enquire after him, and learning, from "some hoary-headed swain," of the way he lived and died, in the village but never quite of it:

"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 crossed in hopeless love.

"One morn I missed him on the customed hill, "Along the heath and near his favourite 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 church-way path we saw him borne."

This, then, is the poet, alienated and neurasthenic, isolated from the villagers whose "short and simple annals" and "artless tale" he writes in his poem. He lives, though he does not work, within its diurnal rhythms, and dwindles to a lonely death. (We might add that the poet is as little at home, as it were, in the idiom and iconography of pastoral as he is in the village community: the nodding beech that conventionally provides comforting shade from the noontime sun to the youthful and vigorous pastoral poet piping on his flute here takes on a form as convoluted as his distress, its drooping leaves and "fantastic roots" echoing his melancholia and his forlorn, crazed woe.)

What remains, and concludes the Elegy, is not so much the memory of the poet among the villagers who saw him at a distance every day, but an epitaph, one whose elaborate composition marks him out, in death as in life, from the villagers. This separation - the divide of literacy - is emphasized by the villager who leads the enquiring "kindred spirit" to the grave of the poet. "Approach and read," he says to the visitor, "for thou cans't read" (l. 115), and he points to the epitaph engraved on the gravestone. These three epitaphic stanzas, written in the same quatrains as the rest of the poem, mourn "A Youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown." To that extent, he is much like the rural folk he wrote about. However, in contrast to their experience,

Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth, And Melancholy marked him for her own.

Large was his bounty and his soul sincere,

Heav'n did a recompence as largely send:

He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,

He gained from Heaven ('twas all he wished) 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.

"Fair Science" — education and knowledge — raises him above his "humble birth," and he is claimed by Melancholy as her own. Lonsdale remarks that "Melancholy" should be understood here as the form of sensibility that both results in the poet's isolation and enables him to experience unusual social sympathies, and thus as a trait that works in tandem, rather than at odds, with "Science" to encourage his "bounty," sincerity, and empathy for those who are miserable (Lonsdale 1969: 139). This is an important suggestion, one that preserves the productive tensions connecting the poet's feeling for the lost community of the village, his passive resignation in the face of social disparities that he registers (if only obliquely), and his more pointed complaints about extravagant and socially aggressive displays of wealth, in life and in death. And it also reminds us that the Elegy escapes the cloying forms of overwrought and self-indulgent poetic sensibility — pity without purpose — only because it traces in the country landscape the rural drama of poverty, work, community, and loss.

The epitaph closes with an injunction to silence, and with the "trembling hope" offered by the consolations of Christian faith, here figured in the bosom of God the Father. We might remember that this moment has been prepared for — and humanized — earlier, in the "fond breast" of communal mourning and remembrance on which the "parting soul relies" (l. 89) in order to live, if only for a bit, beyond death. Once again, Gray's Elegy juxtaposes the conventional forms of mourning — here the consolatio motifs offered by religion — with the alternative forms of community remembrance the poet intuited and described in his account of village lives and deaths. The Epitaph comes to a trembling close in the former idiom, in its hope of an other-worldly redemption, but the Elegy in its entirety reminds us that this final note is less an authoritative conclusion than it is one more turn in a convoluted, and melancholy, search for a poetic home in this world.

See also chs. 4, "Poetry and Religion"; 9, "Poetry, Sentiment, and Sensibility"; 22, "Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, and George Crabbe, The Village"; 40, "Rural Poetry and the Self-Taught Tradition."

References and Further Reading

Barrell, John (1980). The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730—1840. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Edwards, Thomas (1971). Imagination and Power: A Study of Poetry on Public Themes. London: Chatto & Windus.

Empson, William (1979). Some Versions of Pastoral. London: Vintage.

Gleckner, Robert F. (1997). Gray Agonistes: Thomas Gray and Masculine Friendship. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Guillory, John (1993). Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Johnson, Samuel (1975). "Thomas Gray." In Lives of the English Poets, 461—70. London: Dent.

Kaul, Suvir (1992). Thomas Gray and Literary Authority: Ideology and Poetics in Eighteenth-Century England. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Lonsdale, Roger, ed. (1969). The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, Oliver Goldsmith. London and New York: Longman.

Scodel, Joshua (1991). The English Poetic Epitaph: Commemoration and Conflict from Jonson to Wordsworth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Weinfield, Henry (1991). The Poet without a Name: Gray's Elegy and the Problem of History. Carbon-dale: Southern Illinois University Press.

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Responses

  • Kaija
    How does Edward Thomas's poem embody the poets isolation and his contemplation of death?
    3 years ago

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