Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Teaching Guide
- 10 pages
- Subject: Allusion, Historical Context, Imagery, Literary Devices, Metaphor, Themes, Vocabulary, Lesson Plans and Educational Resources
- Grade Levels: 9, 10, 11, 12
Additional Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Resources
So you’re going to teach “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Thomas Gray’s poem has been a mainstay in English classes for generations. Whether it’s the first time or the hundredth time you’ve taken students through this classic English poem, these teaching tips will help ensure that the experience is rewarding for everyone, including you. Teaching Gray’s elegy, especially from a new perspective, will give students insight into the literary traditions of eighteenth-century neoclassicism and the early influence of romanticism, which became the dominant literary philosophy in the nineteenth century.
About This Document
Owl Eyes teaching guides have been designed to help first-time and veteran teachers open up classic works of literature for their students. Our guides provide rich background information, identify key themes and topics, and offer creative and practical approaches to teaching the text.
The main components of each guide include the following:
- A concise history of the text
- An explanation of significant allusions
- Teaching approaches and discussion questions
- Tricky issues to address while teaching
- Alternative teaching approaches
- A list of complementary texts
These teaching guides offer valuable context and promote meaningful discussions about novels, plays, poems, and stories that have captivated English Language Arts students for generations. Each guide is comprehensive and concise, thought-provoking and practical.
Approaches and Discussion Questions Excerpt
Gray’s Self-awareness and Acceptance of His Own Mortality: The focus of the elegy shifts to Gray himself with this passage in stanza 24: “For thee, who, mindful of the unhonored dead, / Dost in these lines their artless tale relate….” In the stanzas that follow, Gray imagines himself being remembered after his death by an old, white-haired farmer (“a hoary-headed swain”), who then describes Gray’s suddenly being absent in the countryside and his subsequent burial in the churchyard. In contemplating his own death, Gray expresses neither sadness nor despair, suggesting an acceptance of his own mortality. In writing his own epitaph to conclude the elegy—an epitaph presented as having been written by someone else—Gray describes exactly how he would like to be remembered; the epitaph is personal and specific to his life, devoid of platitudes or generalities.
- For discussion: In contemplating his own death, Gray imagines that he will be buried in the country churchyard, suggesting that is where he wants to be buried. As an educated person and an accomplished poet, why would he want to be buried among the poor and uneducated people he describes in the elegy? What does choosing to be buried in the country churchyard indicate about him? What does he value in life, and what does he reject?
- For discussion: Based on the description provided by the old farmer, how did Gray feel about the natural world? Where would he often choose to spend his days? What moods would sometimes overtake him?
- For discussion: What does Gray reveal about himself in “The Epitaph”? What kind of person does he seem to have been?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- How is the setting described in the first three stanzas? How would being in this place at this hour feel?
- What are some specific words and phrases that create the atmosphere by appealing to the senses, primarily to sight and hearing?
- What are some examples of onomatopoeia that communicate specific sounds in the setting? How would you describe the sounds? What do they all have in common?
- Define for students the “heroic quatrain,” also known as the “elegiac stanza.”
- How do the stanzas in Gray’s elegy conform to the meter and rhyme scheme of the heroic quatrain?
- What aspects of his society does Gray criticize? How does poverty, lack of education, and lack of opportunity negatively impact society as a whole, as well as individual lives?
- Why has “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” remained one of the most popular poems in English literature? Why is it as relevant today as it was in 18th-century England?