Reading and Writing in Gray’s Elegy

At first glance, Thomas Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" creates a world of opposite communities, the literate aristocracy and the illiterate agrarian laborers. The poor have little time for the dead and therefore are fated to an unhonored death themselves. The aristocracy mocks the toils of the poor during their lives and therefore sees no reason to honor the life that proved so productive. A closer look, though, reveals the merchants of the city and a community only to be defined as mindful. This group that is mindful consists of the "unlettered muse" (81), the speaker, the "hoary-headed swain" (97), and the speaker. The "mindfulness" of this group is an acknowledgement of the unhonored dead. Their "mindfulness" as individuals exists for different reasons. The "unlettered muse" is mindful of the unhonored dead because of the work on their gravestones. The "kindred spirit" is led to the dead by "lonely Contemplation" (95). The speaker is mindful of the dead through his own desire to be remembered sympathetically and the "hoary-headed swain" is mindful of the dead through his attention to the speaker in life and in death.

Gray begins with a setting sun, a laborer returning to his home after a long day’s work, and the speaker taking the foreground along with the night. Nightfall extinguishes the light of day and the world is no longer for both the senses of visibility and sound, blindness descends upon the speaker and sound is the only contribution of the physical world to his thoughts. There is only blackness with the background of the "moping owl" (10) and the beetle in "droning flight" (7). The darkness and solitude of the cemetery are the impetus for his contemplation. During the light he observed the graves of the "rude forefathers" and it is in the darkness that he considers their lives and deaths.

The agrarian community in the "Elegy" is a family bonded by labor. To the "rude forefathers" (15) buried at the cemetery there will never be the satisfaction of the ideal family life Gray depicts. "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." (21-24) There was no greater source of comfort to the family man then the arrival home to a wife who cared for him and a group of children who ran to greet him with affection. These things were their satisfactions, "recompense" (122) for countless hours of labor. Their "recompense" is so valued that great pleasure was taken in their labors as portrayed in this statement, "How jocund did they drive their team afield!" (27). They drove their oxen behind their plows with pleasure. Family and the land are the components of their lives and in both they find great satisfaction. This constant labor with little to show monetarily results in the humblest of burial ceremonies and the crudest of epitaphs that many of their own kind will never be able to read. Without the ability to know of the dead the generations to follow can never honor their ancestors. Their histories are divided by their illiteracy. "The short and simple annals of the poor" (32) are merely parish records that only the literate would have an understanding of. Lineage of the poor is lost with each generation of illiterate children.

A stark contrast to the community of agrarian workers is the aristocracy of great wealth and birth. "The short and simple annals of the poor" are trivial in comparison to "The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power," (33) the long records of lineage that tell of royal ancestry and great learning minds. The aristocratic lifestyle values ambition, grandeur, beauty, and flattery. This, possibly, is where the greatest contrast appears because there is no room in the lives of the poor for any of these values. There can be no grandeur or beauty evident in work that mars a man’s hands with calluses and brings sweat to the brow of a woman completing her daily chores. Ambition to the poor is an unobtainable entity because they have known no other lifestyle than that of the farmer and flattery will not yield a larger crop. Yet the aristocracy sees these values as a sign of superiority. Therefore, despite their ability to read the epitaphs of the poor, they sneer at the thought of wasting their time in such a way.

Gray mourns the loss of opportunity for the poor to develop "Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;" (46). He suggests that it is the poor who could have become the future’s Hampden, Milton and Cromwell, men of great leadership and wisdom. All were literate with the capacity to reason for the good of the people who they spoke to. With this proposal Gray scolds the "Proud" who would mock the meager lives of those buried without great ceremony because their lives were spent well for their purpose. Their potential to be great deserved the honor as well. His reminder that the fate of death for both the rich and the poor is not lost either. All of the property and wealth that the aristocrats can obtain will never buy immortality.

With the description of two communities unmindful of the unhonored dead, Gray introduces a new community of characters mindful of the unhonored dead. One might say that the characters of this community each belong to one of the previously mentioned communities, but it is their awareness of the dead separates them from the rich and poor and binds each character together. This community of an "unlettered muse", the speaker, "kindred spirit", and the "hoary-headed swain", each posses a different background in their relations to the dead. The "unlettered muse" could be a member of the working poor, but the possession of education, although underdeveloped, separates them. The speaker is from a poor family, but somehow broke free of his underprivileged background and obtained an education that fostered the poet within him. The "kindred spirit" is similar to the speaker who dreams him up. A man of education and bonded to the speaker by their meditation. The hoary-headed "swain" is a man of low birth and no money. Definition suggests that he be occupied as a suitor or admirer. When considering the relation of the "swain" to the speaker this appears to be accurate. The "swain" is accustomed to the routine of the speaker and observant of his disappearance followed by the speaker’s death. He is different than the other members due to his illiteracy. For this reason the "kindred spirit" becomes and essential link in the "swain’s" transition to "mindfulness" of the unhonored dead, the speaker. They all possess a "mindfulness" of the unhonored dead, but each is mindful in different ways.

The "unlettered muse", one could argue, is simply mindful of the unhonored dead because of her employment. Her work is to write tributes and scripture on the epitaphs of men, women and children that she has no link to except in humanity through her human form of the stonecutter. "And many a holy text around she strews," (33) she scatters scripture and words of fond memories over the headstones completed for the relatives of her customers. On the other hand, her job is done in a very different way than "the madding crowd" (73). The merchants, the forth community of Gray’s society, unhonorable compromise day after day. The mercantile population engages in the strife without the honor of noble titles or land holdings. This lack of land and title makes their strife different from the "unlettered muse’s", the poor though they do not have the lineage of the aristocrats know the pleasure of working the land they live on.

Among nature’s sounds and the darkness of the graveyard the speaker realizes the need to be remembered sympathetically. His observation of the unvisited graves of the "rude forefathers" leads him to the conclusion that the potential of these buried may not have been achieved. A few might have possessed "noble rage" (51), the capacity to become another Hampden, Milton or Cromwell never realized merely because "Knowledge to their eyes her ample page / Rich with spoils of time did ne’er unroll" (49-50) their abilities were never developed fully because they were never educated. For that potential they should be honored and for their lack of opportunities they should be mourned. "On some fond breast the parting soul relies, Some pious drops the closing eye requires;" (89-90). It is the tears of a friend that the soul hopes for as the inevitability of death closes in upon him. As a man who might have become more if he had been born into fortune, the speaker considers himself a man who will take a place among the unhonored dead. He therefore assumes the same hope for one who will remember with fondness and mourn his death.

The hoary-headed "swain" is a character of great controversy to his classification of "mindfulness". His "mindfulness" of the dead is acquired through the awareness of the death of the speaker. Perhaps there was no connection between the speaker and the "swain" save the "swain’s" familiarity of the daily routine of the wandering speaker. When the creature of habit and reason does not return to his daily wandering, the "swain" develops a curiosity, possibly close to worry. He realizes that the funeral occurring three days later is the ceremony of the wandering poet. While at the sight of the recently departed speaker, the "kindred spirit" comes upon him. It is while he tells the story of the speaker, one of the unhonored dead, to the "kindred spirit" that the "swain" himself becomes aware of the dead. The "kindred spirit" is the medium through which the "swain" now reads the writing on the epitaph of the speaker’s grave. There is another side to the speaker’s life revealed through the writing on the epitaph.

The "kindred spirit" serves as a means to the "mindfulness" of each member of the community. The "kindred spirit" reads the epitaph written by the "unlettered muse" for the "swain". The "swain’s" knowledge of the story on the epitaph creates a fuller image of who the dead man was. Finally, the "kindred spirit" fulfills the desire of the speaker by mourning the loss of one who was bonded to him in their capacities to reflect and realize various realities that lie within the human soul.

In the end Gray’s "Elegy" depicts the ultimate "recompense" for the speaker’s life of contemplation. This "recompense" comes in two forms, a seat with God in Heaven as well as the "mindfulness" of the community represented over his grave.


Works Cited

Gray, Thomas. "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." The Longman Anthology: British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch. Volume 1C. New York: Longman, 1999. 2685-2688.