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Historical Context in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Like many popular 18th-century poems, Elegy in a Country Churchyard contemplates the inevitability of death and the fear of being forgotten. In 18th-century England, the poor didn’t have many opportunities to become worthy of commemoration. The poor worked to survive; there was no time (or opportunity) to get an education or learn a profitable trade. Elegy questions whether the poor are less significant than the rich; if no one escapes death, then death is an equalizer. The poor seem unremarkable because they didn’t have the chance to demonstrate brilliance; thus, they deserve to be remembered too.

Historical Context Examples in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

Text of the Poem

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"Muse's flame. ..."   (Text of the Poem)

The Muses were Greek goddesses that inspired literary, scientific, and artistic expression. Here, they are offered as an alternative to the celestial fire or divine inspiration mentioned earlier: the Muses represent a type of false idolatry that increases one's pride, while divine inspiration is depicted as a sign of genuine talent and a virtuous nature.

"mute inglorious..."   (Text of the Poem)

Gray references these three famous historical figures to suggest that someone in the graveyard could have been just as historically influential if given the chance. Gray uses these allusions to emphasize his theme that talent and genius might be wasted because those of low social class are not given the tools or the space to demonstrate their brilliance.

"Milton..."   (Text of the Poem)

During the English Civil War, John Milton was a statesman who served as the Secretary of Foreign Tongues under Thomas Cromwell. He wrote treaties supporting the revolution and justifying the execution of King Charles I, despite the King's status as a divine right monarch. Milton went on to be one of the greatest poets in English literature with his epic poem Paradise Lost.

"Hampden..."   (Text of the Poem)

John Hampden was a member of Parliament under King Charles I. Hampden refused to pay a tax on his ships because he believed that it was unfair. He became one of the Five Members of Parliament that King Charles illegally tried to arrest for their dissension. Hampden's arrest in 1642 helped spark the English Civil War.

" spoils of time ..."   (Text of the Poem)

Education at this time mostly focused on philosophy, language, and art from the ancient Romans and Greeks. In using this metaphor, Gray characterizes knowledge as understanding antiquity rather than having practical knowledge.

"Curfew..."   (Text of the Poem)

In country villages, the "curfew bell" was rung at the end of the working day, an English tradition that dates back to William the Conquerer (1028–1087), who required villagers to "rake up the fire" and "put out the lights" when the curfew bell sounded. The bell rang around bed-time, so roughly 8PM.

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