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Themes in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Death, the overarching theme in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, is the inevitable fate of humanity regardless of wealth, power, or status. Gray suggests that while death is an equalizer (since all human activity leads to the grave), social class determines who is remembered—the rich are usually commemorated while the poor are forgotten. However, everyone dies in isolation, so Gray questions whether the poor really do lead insignificant lives that aren’t worth remembering. Only nature, as opposed to humankind’s artificial social structures, seems to offer renewal, as decay and death give way to new life.

Themes Examples in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

Text of the Poem

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" Some kindred Spirit ..."   (Text of the Poem)

In this line, Gray states the point of his poem: he has tried to remember those who were lost and forgotten so that someone will do the same for him when he is dead and forgotten. By placing himself in the poem using "thee," Gray ironically becomes the "kindred Spirit." Because Gray becomes part of the poem, it becomes an elegy for the poet and preserves him from being forgotten.

"unlettered..."   (Text of the Poem)

"Unlettered" means both illiterate and someone unskilled at writing. Characterizing a muse, the goddess of inspiration for education, as "unlettered" is ironic because she should be the source of all eduction. This irony reiterates Gray's theme that these poor people could have been great if given the right opportunity; even a muse is "unlettered" in their circumstances.

"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.

"bowed..."   (Text of the Poem)

Farmers would often clear wooded areas in order to cultivate more land for crops. Here, Gray describes this everyday task by saying that the woods "bowed" to the farmers. Bowing was a formal sign of respect that someone of lower social status would do to greet, thank, or otherwise respectfully acknowledge someone of a higher social status. With this term, Gray draws a comparison between the work of the farmers and the work of the nobility, and thus elevates the commonplace work of the farmers.

" ivy-mantled tower..."   (Text of the Poem)

The "ivy-mantled tower" could be the steeple of the church near the graveyard. In describing it as a "tower" Gray draws an implicit comparison between the steeple and a castle or manor, which would have had towers and turrets. Notice that a sharp distinction is made between the man made tower and the sloping fields. Using this imagery, Gray sets up a main theme within the poem: the difference between the famous rich and the indistinguishable poor.

"his weary way..."   (Text of the Poem)

Gray uses the adjective "weary" here in more ways than one. It not only refers to the general weariness of the working plowman, but it also establishes one of the major themes of the poem: the work and toil of all the unremembered dead within the churchyard and (by extension) humankind in general.

"of parting day..."   (Text of the Poem)

Toll, knell, parting: these three words in the first line of the poem establish the mood of the elegy as one of somber meditation, as Gray reminds readers of the inevitable presence of death as the final condition of humankind and sets the scene for his elegy.

"God..."   (Text of the Poem)

Gray's speaker suggests that once a man is dead, it is useless to worry about his strengths or weaknesses any longer. He is in "the bosom of his Father and his God" from then on.

"Melancholy..."   (Text of the Poem)

In the 18th century, "melancholy" meant not just "sadness" but a state of mind in which one understands that one's life is brief and sometimes hard, but it still is worth living. The person being described here would have been both glad and sad at the experience of living. Melancholy is personified as a goddess who "mark[s]" certain individuals.

"might have swayed, Or waked to ecstasy..."   (Text of the Poem)

The speaker's point in this stanza is that, even in this rural graveyard, there may be the grave one who bore the potential to be a powerful leader or a great musician.

"call the fleeting breath?..."   (Text of the Poem)

Gray's speaker reminds the "Proud"—the famous and powerful—of the difficult truth that when we are dead, the type of monuments we may have make no difference; we're still dead.

"short and simple annals of the poor..."   (Text of the Poem)

In the speaker's view, the great and powerful should not look down on the "short and simple" lives of the working class even though the poor do not make an obvious mark on history.

"Let not Ambition mock their useful toil..."   (Text of the Poem)

Gray's speaker suggests that the work of farmers is not exciting, glamorous, or prestigious, but it is nonetheless useful. While ambition is the quality that propels people to fame, it is not necessarily the most essential aspect of human life, morally or practically speaking. The lowing herd still needs to be herded.

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