The Best of Both Worlds
Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is one of the most famous elegies in the genre of English literature. This poem is written by a poet who was in the middle of the intermediate period between Romantic and Neoclassic. Due to the position Gray was in amongst the eras, he was subject to both the periods’ literary standards. With the use and arrangement of language, Gray sustains the Neoclassic ideals, and Gray’s use of theme and situation is of Romantic epitome. Within this poem, it is witnessed that Gray follows some characteristics from both the Romantic and Neoclassicism eras, which allows for a truly invigorating and unique experience.
First, the Neoclassic features of the poem will be discussed. Embodiment is commonly perceived within Neoclassical works. That personification is observed in this poem as Gray uses several intangible words as if they were existing individuals. Gray also often places those incorporeal words as the focuses of words of action. Each of those personified words is, at first, capitalized. A few examples of this personification: Youth, Nature, Memory, Fortune, Melancholy, Misery, etc. An excerpt from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A Youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own. (p. 126).
Another very common trait in Neoclassism is moralizing. Gray moralizes that the rich folks in the city should not stoop to mock and demoralize the poor people within the town. He goes on to state that they, the rich folk, must not be proud of their prestigious birth rank, appearance, or, wealth, because every man’s fate will ultimately result in death. The widely-known portion of the poem says, “Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour: The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” (p. 124).
Adding to the list of Neoclassical elements, dialect and the feelings of the poet in this period are controlled and undemonstrative. Instead, Neoclassic writers are sure to make their work seamless. Precision of panache within their works is what they believed to be essential to write poetry. Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is an example of seamless “construction”. The entire poem consists of 128 lines and it is placed into 32 stanzas. Respectively, every stanza holds to an identical style. Also, Gray’s sentiment is controlled within each verse. True to Neoclassical approach, the poem’s attitude and rhyme structure are measured and unfluctuating. Also, the stance does not give into an emotional outburst nor does it break its cadence. It is intellectual, rather. An example of Gray’s rational leaning:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air. (p. 124)
Sadness is present within the work, but the poet remains aloof; it is a shame that people pass away unnoticed and not mourned, but that is the way life goes on in the greater arrangement of existence.
Now, to address the Romantic elements of Gray’s poem. Firstly, subjectivity is Romantic literature’s most significant component. In this poem, it seems that the writer ends the first stanza with the subjective expression “me”; “And leaves the world to darkness and to me.” (p. 123). Gray also ends this elegy with his personal inscription that will be read alongside his final resting place. This poem is enclosed with subjectivity.
The poem’s central theme is death, so, the reader can contemplate this to be an element of the Romantic era. Within the first stanza,
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me. (p. 123).
The ‘parting day’ and the ‘darkness’ can be interpreted as symbols of death. The poet also remarks the death of the past inhabitants of of the town, and, lastly, the awareness of his own passing.
Last but certainly not considered the least, an essential portion of Romanticism is nature. From start to finish, within the poem, Gray’s descriptions possess nature