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Vocabulary in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Vocabulary Examples in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

Text of the Poem

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"Fair Science..."   (Text of the Poem)

"Fair Science" shining upon him suggests that the youth was well educated. Unlike the vain poets inspired by muses or the poor who wasted their celestial fire, Gray is favored by "Science" a symbol of acquired knowledge through the study of a discipline.

"lay..."   (Text of the Poem)

"Lay" in this context means religious law. The Swain believes that the headstone has a Bible verse on it. This recalls the description of the unlettered muse haphazardly scattering Bible verses on headstones earlier in the poem. However, what follows is not a Bible verse but a sophisticated poem. This line establishes a difference between the simple Swain, who cannot read, and the learned reader who can.

"dirges..."   (Text of the Poem)

A "dirge" is a sad song played at a funeral. The presence of this song signifies that the man the Swain watches—Gray—is dead.

"fond breast..."   (Text of the Poem)

"Fond breast" refers to the fond sentiments that cause one's friends or relatives to remember them after they are dead. The dead rely on their living loved ones to maintain their memory.

"insult to protect, ..."   (Text of the Poem)

The "insult" that these bones must be protected from is someone walking on their grave. The headstones are crude, but they still mark the burial site and protect the bones.

"noble rage, ..."   (Text of the Poem)

"Rage" in this context means an intense passion or appetite. "Noble" means dignified or virtuous. This oxymoron signifies a desire to learn that is both ferocious and ardent, while being refined and belonging to a higher social class. Gray uses this metaphor to characterize the forgotten peasants buried in the graveyard as extremely worthy recipients of knowledge so that their lack of knowledge seems tragic.

"storied urn or animated bust..."   (Text of the Poem)

A "bust" is a sculpture of someone's head and shoulders generally commissioned after the person has died to preserve their features. "Storied urns" refer to vases painted with depictions of historical battles, myths and celebrations. Both of these artistic pieces are used to preserve the memory of something that has passed, and are generally commissioned by a person or family that has a lot of money.

"rod of empire..."   (Text of the Poem)

Rulers used to carry scepters or iron rods in order to signify their status as a ruler. With this image, Gray imagines that one of the people buried here had the skills to be a great ruler, but were never able to exercise this talent.

"celestial fire;..."   (Text of the Poem)

In this context, "celestial fire" means divine inspiration, especially for poetic or artistic brilliance. Using this description, Gray imagines that someone buried in the graveyard was a great poet, though they are now forgotten.

"mansion..."   (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..."   (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.

"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.

"sickle..."   (Text of the Poem)

A "sickle" is a farming tool used to harvest crops. However, the word also invokes images of death. The word itself contains the word "sick" and the grim reaper is often depicted carrying a sickle. Gray uses the many loaded images that come with sickle to suggest death resides within everyday actions. Even though the farmers successfully harvest their crops and conquer the woods, death will win out in the end.

"folds..."   (Text of the Poem)

Gray's choice of "folds" can be interpreted in a few ways, but the different meanings still convey the same idea of adding to the rustic, quiet landscape. "Folds" can refer to enclosures on farms for domestic animals, and it can also be interpreted as the topographical curves on hills and meadows.

"tinklings..."   (Text of the Poem)

Gray uses this word to refer to the soft, metallic sound that comes from the small bells around the necks of the herd of cattle. The soft noise coupled with the setting sun build on the dreamy and quiet scene that he has portrayed in the opening.

"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.

"tolls the knell..."   (Text of the Poem)

The verb "to toll" traditionally refers to causing a great bell to sound by pulling on a rope. Such bells are often associated with churches, which in turn are often near graveyards. Paired with the noun "knell" which refers to the sound that the large bell makes, this phrase has strong associations with such somber occasions as church services and funerals.

"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.

"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.

"Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife..."   (Text of the Poem)

This is one of the most well-known and often-quoted phrases in English poetry. Madding means maddening.

"ingenuous shame..."   (Text of the Poem)

Gray uses "ingenuous shame" to mean natural or noble shame. In this case, shame is a good thing because it is the result of having a conscience.

"rude..."   (Text of the Poem)

In this case, Gray's use of the adjective "rude" means "common," "unrefined" or "of humble origin," rather than the modern meaning of something or someone being offensive.

"lowing..."   (Text of the Poem)

The verb "to low" describes the soft mooing sound cattle and other bovine animals make. The sound is deep and resonant.

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