By Skylar Woods
Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard makes readers ponder about what truly happens after they die. Will they be remembered by loved ones with smiles and tears of joy? Or detested by all of mankind? Gray’s poem uses a simple four line stanza mixed with an ABAB rhyming pattern, placing stress on a template of certain syllables to allude to the dark capacity of human nature mixed with the potential to do good deeds. Alongside this rhyming pattern, Gray uses heavy symbolism from the literal environment to emphasize a complex idea of death and mortality, while also using comparisons to real life objects that are simple to understand. Finally, the simple word choice, capitalization, and personification of Death — and other emotions — are used to both simplify and simultaneously add depth to the meaning of each word.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard uses a simple, yet effective, ABAB rhyming pattern in four line stanzas. The simplicity of this pattern is ironic when contrasted with the deep meaning of the poem. As with most poems, there is a more complex substructure with stresses on certain syllables on every line. This stressing pattern can be seen very prominently: “The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide, / To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,” (Gray lines 69-70). There are light tongued words at the start of every line such as ‘to’, ‘the’, and ‘if’. Yet the start of the second word is always a heavy mouthed sound using letters that use a heavier tongue and the back of the throat to pronounce. The stresses on the words are in an alternating pattern between softly mouthed sounds. Gray uses this mixture of light and heavy syllables to emphasize the light and darkness every human being possesses.
The lighter syllables make the tongue come forward, closer to the exit of the mouth. This action shows that on the outside every person is trying to be praiseworthy and put on a fabricated, lighthearted smile — a smile that is made when the word ‘the’ is mouthed. The heavier words can only be made using the lungs like a ‘guh’ sound, a noise that can only be made using an internal body part. With this steady and relentless pattern found throughout the entire poem, Thomas Gray ironically adds structure while continuing to address the darkness found inside all human beings.
Gray uses the environment within the poem to conjure up a serene landscape that is starting to change into a darker, ghostly terrain. He does this to show how the very base of humanity can quickly morph into darkness. This begins almost at the very beginning of the poem: “Now fade the glimmering landscape on the sight, / And all the air a solemn stillness holds” (Lines 5-6). The very earth that the speaker is standing on is quickly blackened as the sun sets, symbolizing the very core pillars of mankind growing dark. In addition, within the poem, comparisons are made to simple images that represent deep complex emotions:
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. (Lines 53-56).
By making these simple comparisons, Gray is sayinging that internal darkness is on the ground floor of the physiological hierarchy. The meaning of the comparison above is that many people have the potential inside themselves to benefit humanity in the best of ways, yet never get a chance due to the “unfathomed caves of ocean bear” (54).
Finally, Gray personifies the emotions by capitalizing them. This simple technique is used to bring that idea of darkness to life within the reader’s mind. With line 36, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” this gives an overarching structure and warning within the poem. Every emotion that is personified and capitalized can be traced to a need for glory, such as Honour, Knowledge, and Pride, for this simplicity allows for a clearer warning to be given. The diction allows readers to comprehend the fear of darkness that is found within everyone:
Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death? (Lines 41-44)
No matter what social class a person is, no amount of honor, pride, or flattery can convince Death to spare a life. This stanza completely disintegrates all social, monetary, and rank boundaries.
This poem’s message is a warning that darkness is within every single person regardless of status, yet this darkness has only as much power as a person allows it. Each person has the power to change humanity for the best or worse depending on their desires.
Skylar Woods is a student at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he studies Creative Writing. He enjoys writing of all kinds but particularly finds pleasure in writing analysis essays and fiction stories and hopes to strengthen and expand his writing career in the future.
You can follow him on Twitter: @Skylarwoods13