Text of the Poem

The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day, 
     The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way, 
     And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,       
     And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight, 
     And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
     The moping owl does to the moon complain         
Of such, as wandering near her secret bower,
     Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade, 
     Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering 
          heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
     The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn, 
     The swallow twittering from the straw-built 
          shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
      No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.   

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn, 
     Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
     Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
     Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield! 
     How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy 
          stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
     Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;    
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
     The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
     And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
     The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye Proud, impute to These the fault, 
     If Memory o'er their Tomb no Trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted
          vault 
     The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
     Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath? 
Can Honor's voice provoke the silent dust,
     Or Flattery sooth the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
     Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed, 
     Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page 
     Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repressed their noble rage, 
     And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
     The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, 
     And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast 
     The little Tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, 
     Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's 
          blood.

The applause of listening senates to command, 
     The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
     And read their history in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone 
     Their growing virtues, but their crimes 
          confin'd;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne, 
     And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide, 
     To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
     With incense kindled at the Muse's flame.

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife, 
     Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
     They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet even these bones from insult to protect, 
     Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture
          decked, 
     Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by the unlettered 
          muse,
     The place of fame and elegy supply: 
And many a holy text around she strews,
     That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
     This pleasing anxious being e'er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day, 
     Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
     Some pious drops the closing eye requires; 
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries, 
     Ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires.

For thee, who mindful of the unhonoured Dead 
     Dost in these lines their artless tale relate,
If chance, by lonely contemplation led, 
     Some kindred Spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed Swain may say, 
     "Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
     To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.      

"There at the foot of yonder nodding beech 
     That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch, 
     And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

"Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,     
     Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn, 
     Or crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless 
          love.

"One morn I missed him on the customed hill,
     Along the heath and near his favorite tree;        
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
     Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

"The next with dirges due in sad array
     Slow through the church-way path we saw him 
          borne.
Approach and read (for thou can'st read) the lay,      
     Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn."

The Epitaph

Here rests his head upon the lap of earth
     A youth to fortune and to fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
     And Melancholy marked him for her own.     

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere, 
     Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
     He gained from Heaven ('twas all he wished) a 
          friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose, 
     Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose) 
     The bosom of his Father and his God.

Footnotes

  1. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. "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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. "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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. "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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Notice that Gray suddenly addresses a subject. He uses this "thee" to refer to himself. In this way, Gray is able to insert himself into the poem. He is no longer a spectator observing the graves of others, but a participant within the action of the poem.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. "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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. "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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. Notice that the proceeding stanza is a series of dependent clauses that lead to this conclusion. The peasants's lot, poverty, forbade all of the things listed in the previous stanza.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  21. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  22. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  23. Gray uses these two metaphors to compare the dead in the churchyard to beautiful things that are never seen: a gem in a dark ocean cave and a blooming flower in a barren desert.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  24. Eduction 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  25. "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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  26. "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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  27. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  28. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  29. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  30. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  31. "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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  32. Gray makes power, beauty, and wealth meaningless as all paths in life lead to death. If anything, these symbols of wealth and power are even more ridiculous because both poor and rich alike are destined to die. Here, Gray uses death to erase the distinction between the rich and the poor that he established through imagery at the beginning of the poem.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  33. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  34. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  35. This line marks a turning point within the poem at which Gray stops describing the farmer and begins addressing an imagined audience. Gray presupposes the audience's opinion of the characters he is describing and contradicts it.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  36. "Ply" is a shorthand form of "apply." Gray shortens this word in order to fit the rhythm of his lines. "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is composed in heroic quatrains of iambic pentameter. Using the word "apply" would throw off the rhythm of the poem.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  37. "Lisp" in this context refers to the imperfect way that children speak. With this endearing characterization of children excited about their father's return, Gray creates a pastoral image of the poor. The pastoral tradition is a literary trope that idealizes the life, traditions, and landscapes of rural life. This is an idealized image of the end of a working man's day.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  38. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  39. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  40. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  41. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  42. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  43. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  44. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  45. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  46. The man will no longer climb the "customed hill" because he has died.

    — Stephen Holliday
  47. Gray is saying, in effect, don't worry about the man's strengths or weaknesses any longer.  He is now in God's hands.

    — Stephen Holliday
  48. 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.

    — Stephen Holliday
  49. The dead rely on the living to perform some necessary tasks--for example, the placing of coins on the eyelids to keep them closed.

    — Stephen Holliday
  50. A completely ambiguous line.  The most likely meaning is "for the person who is about to be forgotten"--that is, the person who is in the grave.

    — Stephen Holliday
  51. Here Gray points out that the monuments in the country churchyard, although not beautiful or eloquent, protect the dead.

    — Stephen Holliday
  52. One of the most well-known and often-quoted phrases in English poetry. Madding means maddening.

    — Stephen Holliday
  53. Gray uses "ingenuous shame" to mean natural or noble shame; in other words, shame, in this case, is a good thing because it's the result of having a conscience.

    — Stephen Holliday
  54. Gray refers to Oliver Cromwell, a leader of the Parliament forces against King Charles I, and, later, Lord Protector of England during what is known as the Commonwealth Interregnum. Gray believed that Cromwell was guilty of a great deal of bloodshed, but here he is suggesting that there might be a "guiltless" Cromwell in the graveyard.

    — Stephen Holliday
  55. Gray's point here is that, even in this rural graveyard, there may be the grave of a powerful leader or a great musician.

    — Stephen Holliday
  56. When we are dead, the type of monuments we may have make no difference--we're still dead.

    — Stephen Holliday
  57. Gray is addressing the rich and powerful, who may have beautiful monuments on their graves, to remind them not to look down upon the poor who have no such monuments.

    — Stephen Holliday
  58. The great and powerful people should not look down on the brief and basic lives of the working class even though the poor do not make a mark on history.

    — Stephen Holliday
  59. Gray's meaning is that the farmer's work is not very exciting, but it is useful.  

    — Stephen Holliday
  60. In this case, Gray's use of the adjective "rude" is meant to convey something more like "rustic" or, perhaps, "original" rather than the current meaning of something or someone being offensive.

    — Stephen Holliday
  61. This is an example of alliteration, a common literary and poetic technique that repeats initial sounds, usually consonants, for an effect. In this case, the repetition of the s sound helps provide a calm and quiet atmosphere..

    — Stephen Holliday
  62. The verb "to low" describes the soft moo-ing sounds cattle and other bovine animals make. The sound is deep and resonant.

    — Stephen Holliday
  63. In country villages, the "curfew bell" was rung at the end of the working day, a tradition that goes back to William the Conquerer, 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 about 8 pm in rural towns and villages.

    — Stephen Holliday