The Solitary Figure Finds Solace and Meaning in Death

In Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" there are several key examples of writing within the poem, which provide a connection between the seemingly separate communities of the "unhonored dead" (93), the honored dead and the solitary speaker. Specifically these examples are: the implied detailed tombstones and historical annals of the honored dead, the "simple annals of the poor" (found only in the "uncouth rhymes" on the tombstones) and the speaker’s epitaph at the end of the poem. The speaker is the only person in the poem capable of providing insight into the common link among these communities through his acknowledgement of these writings. He is a melancholic, solitary figure and does not appear to fit into either of the two major social communities found in the poem, but into a third less definable one. His capacity for sensibility coupled with his pensive nature lead him to the realization that no matter what community a person belongs to in life, whether their tombstones are simple or extravagant, everyone belongs to the same community in death. It becomes clear that the connecting force between the communities is the instinctive desire to be remembered. This is made apparent in the engravings, elegies and epitaphs we leave behind. Once the speaker understands this common need for remembrance he is able to see that the only "recompense" (122) heaven may offer is in the form of a "kindred spirit," (96) and he finds meaning in the hope that some "friend" (124) will be "mindful" (93) of him, just as he is mindful of the dead in the country churchyard.

As I have mentioned, there are three major communities that exist in Gray’s "Elegy." It is important to understand these communities and the speaker’s relationship to them in order to discover how the speaker has found meaning beyond them in death. The two obvious communities that are given the most attention in the poem are the traditionally divided classes of the wealthy upper class and the poor lower class. The third major community in the poem is the one which the speaker represents. He falls into a gray category in terms of class. We know that he is educated and scholarly from his speech and knowledge of historical figures, yet in his epitaph he claims to be of "humble birth" (119). He is alienated from these class-oriented communities and fits into a separate melancholic community. He identifies with an imagined "swain" (97) and the "kindred spirit" both of which also seem to fit into this gray category. The speaker sympathizes with the "unhonored dead" but stands apart from them in life. He treats the upper class as intangible by representing it with abstract ideas such as "heraldry" (33) in order to show his distance from the members in it.

The speaker goes on to describe the community of the wealthy upper class with the ideal of "Ambition" (29), which he seems to lack, further separating himself from them. In the eyes of the speaker the major distinguishing factor between the upper and lower classes is a matter of opportunity. Because the wealthy belong to the privileged class, "Knowledge to their eyes her ample page / . . . did . . . unroll" (49-50), whereas she did not for the poor.

This gift of "knowledge" which the wealthy possess enables that community to have an advantage in writing, specifically in the writing they leave behind after their deaths. Although there aren’t any references to any specific examples of written annals or elegies of the upper class their existence is implied through the contrasting images of the annals and elegies of the lower class. We know that they must be extravagant and full of "Grandeur" (31) as opposed to those belonging to the poor which are "simple" (32).

The speaker’s defense of "The short and simple annals of the poor" (32) against the "Ambition" (29) and "Grandeur" (31) of the wealthy presents the first tangible example of writing within the poem. These "annals" could only refer to the grave markers mentioned later in lines 78-9. The headstones would contain "Their name, their years, spelt by th’unlettered muse" (81), the only record of their lives, which would not have been seen as significant enough by the ambitious and grandiose to be recorded anywhere else. Thus the lives of these individuals are in danger of being overlooked and forgotten.

In order to prevent the memory of the dead from being lost there must be some kind person to remember. That is where the role of the speaker comes in. Although he does not belong to the "rustic" (84) community of the dead farmers mentioned above, he claims that he is "mindful of th’unhonored dead" (93). It is the speaker’s thoughtful sensibility, which allows him to sympathize with the dead, that keeps their memory alive and gives their lives meaning. He senses that the "frail memorial" (78) "Implores the passing tribute of a sigh" (80) and is more than willing to pay his own silent tribute to them in thought in order to bring them the meaning he senses that "the parting soul relies (on)". He includes himself with these souls and acknowledges his own desire to be remembered when he says, "Ev’n from the tomb the voice of nature cries, / Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires" (91-2).

The speaker’s recognition of those "wonted fires" and that echoing "voice of nature" within him have led him to imagine his own death. He hopes that, "Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy (his) fate," (96) so that someone might pay tribute to him and quench those flames, just as he did for the unhonored dead. He imagines that the illiterate "spirit" or "swain" would be able to read and understand the epitaph, which he has imagined for himself in the hope of being remembered. He assumes that these kindred spirits will be able to transcend the boundaries of literacy and come to see him as the man of "humble birth" (119) that "Melancholy marked for her own" (120). The speaker is hopeful because he was able to look beyond the lack of letters on the tombs of the rustics by imagining the undiscovered potential of the inhabitants when he thought, "Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid / Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire" (45-6). His desire to be acknowledged and remembered in his own epitaph in order to find meaning echoes the wishes of the unhonored dead with their humble engravings and honored dead with their extravagant letters, alike.

He is able to find meaning in his own life in the potential he has of being sent a "friend" (124) which heaven would send as "recompense" (122). We understand that if heaven would give him a swain and spirit to remember him so that the tear he shed for the dead may be repaid with the sympathy of another he would feel that his solitary, melancholic existence was validated.

The speaker, the swain and the spirit are the only ones in the poem capable of seeing the connection between the engravings of the honored dead, the annals of the poor, and their own epitaphs because of their positions as outsiders. The speaker’s epitaph represents his own death and provides a path for him through his membership in a solitary community in life into the unified community of mankind in death. Thus his melancholy state has provided him with the solace he seeks by leading him to find meaning in the "recompense" of a "friend."

 

Works Cited

Gray, Thomas. "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." Longman Anthology of British Literature. Addison-Wesley Educational publishersInc. 1999. Pp. 2685-8.