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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
" Some kindred Spirit ..." See in text (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..." See in text (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..." See in text (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.
" ivy-mantled tower..." See in text (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..." See in text (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..." See in text (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.