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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780

Class 23

Nov. 22: Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard"

Reading Assignment:

Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard" (NAEL 2830-2833)
Please also read the headnote for the author, pp. 2825-6.
    Due: Post #11 Group B

Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:

An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard (1751)


Be sure to read the headnote to Gray to learn about the history and success of this famous poem.

As background or prepatory work for appreciating this poem, consider and compare the ways in which we commemorate the dead. Who do we commemorate and how? Why do we honor the dead? What words do we leave behind for the dead? Read some obituaries and compare their meaning with the ideas of the poem. See St. Petersburg Times online for examples.

To glimpse an idea of the form of pomp and pageantry granted to the honored dead, visit the website for Westminster Abbey, the most famous collection of memorials for the dead in Britain. In particular take the 360 degree tour of Poet's Corner.

This poem investigates the dangers of the glamorous world and contrasts that with the humble simplicity of the country villagers, but unlike the representation of rural life from the perspective of peasants, for instance, this poem is written from the perspective of the educated outsider poet. How does this differ?

The poem is considered a pastoral elegy -- that is an elegy or poem in honor of a dead person set in the country, with conventions of shepherds, swains, nymphs. What does it have in common with the night poetry we studied previously?

The style is elegiacal with the traditional ABAB four line stanza. What is the effect of this rhyme scheme on the sound of the poem? How does this heighten the effect of the language?

Whose elegy is this? What is the speaker's relationship to those he writes about? Why is he writing this elegy?

The first three stanzas describe the rural landscape at dusk, once again invoking this liminal state -- this in-betweenness that is not day and is not night. What is the significance of the country church yard, as opposed to, say, Westminster Abbey? What does the setting suggest about the poet's place in this context?

The poet considers the "rude Forefathers of the Hamlet" in lines 17 and on. What virtues do these rustics possess? What are the implications of this description?

Analyze line 36: "The Paths of Glory lead but to the Grave" -- how does the poem develop this theme? Compare this to the representation of mortality in other works, like Rasselas or Gulliver's Travels.

Who does the speaker address in the next lines (37-40):
"Nor you, ye Proud, impute to These the fault/ If Mem'ry o'er their Tomb no Trophies raise, / Where thro' the long-drawn Isle and fretted Vault / The pealing Anthem swells the Note of Praise."

Examine the beautiful lines 49-56 "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen...." What do these lines suggest about fame? About the laboring classes?

Examine the implications of the poet's thoughts on "Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, / some Cromwell guiltless of his Country's Blood" (59-60).

The speaker makes his own unambiguous decision in favor of a life of rural innocence in the first stage of the poem. However, the inadequacy of the solution -- the escape into the country -- surfaces in the conclusion. What are some of the problems with rural country innocence? How is the poet barred from the experience?

The poet changes his mind regarding the state of this class. What makes him reconsider? What does this new value for ignorance have to do with the country versus the city?

The last section centers on the role of poetry -- how one remembers the dead. How does one remember the unlettered dead?

The speaker imagines a rustic muse, creating epitaphs for the dearly departed. Everybody needs to be remembered: "ev'n from the Tomb the Voice of Nature Cries,/ Ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires" What are the implications of this?

He then offers these lines -- the poem -- to those who are "mindful of th'unhonoured dead" (93). What does this suggest about the poet's attitude toward the laboring people? Toward poetry?

The closing lines here return to the poet himself, as he imagines what one of the country folk would say of his death. The division between the country people and the poet himself becomes evident. Examine the final lines.

The poem celebrating the unhonored dead ends with a fantasy of the poet's own death, where he envisions his anonymity (and marginality) but creates his own fame (both in the epitaph, and in the poem which literally made Gray famous). How does this illustrate the problems of fame and immortality that the poem tries to work out?

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