I have always enjoyed this poem since the first time I read it so many years ago. I love the imagery and how he philosophizes about life and death. In the first stanza he gets right to it and shows how he is different than the average person one who is wont to wander in the night and be separated from man.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea, The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Most of my life I could identify with those lines. Late nights spent only with the silence of the night.
When he gets to describing the graveyard you get this really neat description of the graves,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid, The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
Such a fitting description. What better way to think of death than literally being in a cell! Jail time for you, don’t pass go, don’t collect 200 dollars! But for real, there is another way to look at it as well. Death is but a meditation between man and God and when we die we enter our hermit’s cell to do exactly that, meditate upon God. Thomas Gray may not have thought of it exactly like that but to me it still rings true.
Gray continues with his description of how final death is, how none shall enjoy the simple things of life no more. How riches and power cannot keep death from cutting you down.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
So true, so true. None of us are special to Death for he will reap all of us when our time has come.
One of the few lines that really got me thinking was,
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 waked to ecstasy the living lyre:
I can see myself standing in the graveyard and lo and behold what is at my feet but none other than an infants grave. Even in the graveyards near meI have walked and in the older sections there are so many children’s graves. Think how many never made it out of their youth back then, how many could of went on to do great things if they had but lived. Interesting thought, yes? Of course later he also says,
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.
He clearly is talking about the country person who lived a full life and never entered the world’s mad race for power. Nonetheless it takes not a bit away from my earlier sentiment. I would think that he admired the simple life and would of wished it more for himself as well.
On to the poem ……..
ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCHYARD by Thomas Gray The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea, The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me. 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 The moping owl does to the moon complain Of such as, wandering 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 mouldering heap, Each in his narrow cell for ever laid, The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep. 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 bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke! 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. The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave Awaits alike th’ 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? 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 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 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. Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast The little tyrant of his fields withstood, Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood. Th’ applause of listening 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 Their lot forbad: nor circumscribed alone Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined; Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne, And shut the gates of mercy on mankind; The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide, 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 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. 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 die. 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. For thee, who, mindful of th’ unhonour’d dead, Dost in these lines their artless tale relate; If chance, by lonely Contemplation led, Some kindred spirit shall enquire 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, 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 noon-tide 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. ‘One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d 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,— Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay Graved on the stone beneath yon agèd thorn:' The Epitaph 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; Heaven did a recompense as largely send: He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear, He gain’d 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.
You can get a copy of his complete poems at this link
The Poems of Thomas Gray (Classic Reprint) or an ebook
Delphi Complete Works of Thomas Gray (Illustrated) (Delphi Poets Series Book 47)
They are very much worth the time reading.