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Literary Devices in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Thomas Gray creates a melancholy tone with onomatopoeia, parallel structure, and the elegiac stanza. The quietness of the country churchyard is conveyed through onomatopoeia (words whose sounds convey their meaning): the beetle wheels his “droning flight” and the owl is “moping.” The first and second halves of each line are balanced (parallel structure) to achieve intensity and coherence; for example, “the boast of heraldry” balances “the pomp of pow’r” (line 33). Gray also combines elegiac-stanza form (4 lines of iambic pentameter with an ABAB rhyme scheme) and monosyllabic words with long vowels to emphasize quiet somberness.
Literary Devices Examples in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:
Text of the Poem
"repose..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
In this final stanza, Gray separates himself from his merits and his frailties. They become independent entities that seek repose in the bosom of God just as he does. This is an interesting note to end on because Gray has focused on the dead's merits, frailties, and missed opportunities to display merits throughout the rest of the poem.
"all he had..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
"All he had" in this context both undermines and supports the notion that this man was melancholic. He gave all that he had to Misery; however, all he had was a single tear.
"thou..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
In the Swain’s story, “thou” addresses the reader of the poem. Notice that now there are three levels to the poem: one in which Gray sits in a churchyard speaking about the dead, another in which Gray invents a character to speak about his future death, and finally a third in which the reader is imported into the future moment and asked to read about the dead Gray's life.
"behind..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
This stanza marks the final turn in the poet's focus to his final subject: the fear of being forgotten after one dies. While the beginning and middle of the poem meditated on the advantages and disadvantages of poverty, the tension between rich and poor, and wasted potential, the end of the poem will meditate on how someone can be remembered after they have died.
"unknown...." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The Epitaph begins with Gray's humble origins. Like the dead whom he has been describing, he was not born into fortune and fame. Beginning the Epitaph with Gray's birth suggests that this short poem will tell the entire story of his life.
"say..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
Gray places his voice in an invented character, the "hoary-headed Swain," in order to narrate his own movements. The story that the Swain tells us works to make Gray the subject of the poem and mimics the poetic action that Gray hoped someone would undertake after his death. Gray uses this Swain in order to preserve his own memory.
"pleasing anxious being..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The "pleasing anxious being" is a poetic way to describe the human body. Here, Gray creates tension as a being residing in a cheerful day must decide to resign itself to being forgotten. Using this rhetorical question, he claims that no one is capable of entering death without looking back at their "cheerful day," or life.
"never learned to stray..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
Notice that the idealized vision of the country and poverty resurfaces in this line. Gray depicts country peasants as virtuous simply because they lack money and eduction, suggesting that money and eduction are corrupting. Gray seems to ignore the other vices that may affect these people in order to comment on the society in which he lives.
"Muse's flame. ..." See in text (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.
"circumscribed..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
After listing all of the "virtues" or positive things that poverty restricts, Gray also briefly lists the negative things that poverty prevents the poor from doing. This marks a small turn in Gray's meditation on access to knowledge and power.
"lyre..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
"Waked to ecstasy" signifies the creation of incredibly music using a "lyre" or small harp. With these three fantasies about the potentials of the people in the graveyard, Gray suggests that qualities belong to men rather than lineage. Though lineage determines where one ultimately ends up, in the grave yard or the crypt, and what they spend their days doing, real ability lies in the heart, hands, and mind.
"mansion..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
Gray compares the human body to a "mansion," the chief resident of a lord or nobleman. Mansions were passed down from generation to generation and seen as an enduring symbol of a family's power. However, in this metaphor, Gray juxtaposes the image of a mansion with "fleeting breath" in order to show that the enduring symbols of wealthy men, busts, mansions, urns, are just as ephemeral as breath. All men are going to die, even if they leave behind man-made structures to preserve their memory.
"Trophies..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
"Trophies" in this context is something that serves as a token or monument to courage, skill, success, or social status. Here, Gray evokes the metaphorical and literal sense of this word. Trophies either refers to the physical ornaments that mark the graves of the rich, or the metaphorical trophies erected by the memories that keeps the names of the rich and powerful alive while it forgets the common man.
"rouse..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
Gray lists four things that would wake common people: the smell of the morning, the twittering of a bird, the crow of a rooster, or a shepherd's horn. This catalogue of methods used to wake up for the workday characterizes those buried in the churchyard in two ways. First, they are poor because they must use these methods instead of servants to wake them. Second, they must wake in order to start their work day - they are defined as workers.
"mouldering..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
Gray references the graves buried in the church yard. "Mouldering," meaning to mold or decay, directly contrasts the elevated image of the church tower and it's "ancient solitary reign." In juxtaposing these two images, Gray is able to depict two types of graves: the grand tombs of the rich buried within the church, and the decrepit graves of the poor crammed into the church yard.