The Dividing and Uniting of Human Beings in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

Thomas Gray’s poem, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a complex work of art that focuses on ideas such as community, education, and the human soul. Gray, in Elegy, creates a scene in which education, the ability to read and write, divides the human race into two distinct communities, one poor and one rich, that are only united as one community in death. However, Gray also introduces a man, who although educated, never became part of a community and therefore must honor the forgotten dead in order to assure that he will receive the acknowledgement his soul longs for in death. Therefore, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" demonstrates that although humans are divided in life by education, or the lack thereof, they will be united in one community upon dying.

Gray begins the poem by asserting that there exists an innate relationship between education and financial standing. Speaking of the poor Gray states, "But knowledge to their eyes her ample page / Rich with the spoils of time ne’er did unroll; / Chill Penury repressed their noble rage, / And Froze the genial current of the soul" (Gray 49-52). Immediately, correlations between ideas of wealth and abundance are found intermixed with knowledge and education. Gray speaks of knowledge’s "ample page" describing it as being "Rich with spoils." Ample, rich, and spoils, are all terms associated with abundance or wealth. The intertwining of ideas associated with the luxuries of wealth and education presents the belief that wealth is only attained through exposure to education, a blessing the poor never received.

Yet, it is implied that the noble class who garnered wealth because of receiving education, did so through no action of their own. In line 50, Gray describes knowledge as unrolling, or in this case, not unrolling to the poor. The idea of knowledge unrolling is quite important because it is a passive expression. Knowledge was unrolled, or given to the recipients, in this case the wealthy nobles, not by any action of their own, but through a chance encounter with its "ample page." The noble class did not seek out, or work to receive, the blessings of knowledge; education was merely unrolled for them. Gray infers that knowledge, and all the luxuries that follow were granted to the nobles through mere chance.

The assertion that acquiring knowledge is a passive act, one in which the recipient does not initiate, leads to Gray’s description of all humans having nobility within them. As already stated, knowledge, which is gained by chance, leads to wealth and nobility, but Gray implies that given the same opportunity the poor too would have been noble had not, "Chill Penury repressed their noble rage," (Gray 51). Penury, simply translated, means poverty, which of course is the opposite of wealth. Since wealth is attained through education one can easily assert that poverty is incurred through the lack of education. The poverty results in repression of the poors’ "noble rage." Describing the poor as having a "noble rage" is important because it demonstrates that nobility resides inside of them, yet poverty, acquired by the lack of education, has repressed nobility and placed the poor in the impoverished class in which they live. Gray effectively illustrates two polar classes, one defined by luxury, the other poverty, yet they only differ in the acquisition of education.

Although Gray creates a situation in which education determines whether or not one will become wealthy, he introduces a man who does not fit in either social class, an exception to the rule that education results in wealth. In the poem the man is directly spoken to by Gray and has his inevitable death illustrated. The poem itself concludes with the epitaph on the man’s gravestone. It is from this epitaph that the man’s class standing, or lack thereof, is revealed. The future epitaph describes the man as, "A youth to fortune and to fame unknown. / Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth," (Gray 118 –119). This description is interesting because the man is educated but does not have the luxuries associated with attaining education. Education "frowned not" upon him, again a passive description showing that education is received by chance, not work. But, at the same time it is stated that he was a "youth to fortune and to fame unknown". The nobility and wealth that is expected to follow education does not in this instance, resulting in an individual who is educated, yet not a member of the nobility, and therefore currently devoid of a social community.

However, Gray explains that in death, all humans, regardless of their earthly social class, enter into one all encompassing community. Of a person’s death Gray says "On some fond breast the parting soul relies, / Some pious drops the closing eye requires" (Gray 89-91). This statement is important for two reasons. One, it clearly explains what the soul needs in death, a "fond breast" and "pious drops." The pious drops and fond breast are reverent tears mourning the passing soul and an affectionate love, respectively. For pious means respectful or reverent, and the drops described can be easily interpreted as the tears that follow the death of a loved one. The fond breast refers to love since the breast is the part of the body that covers the heart, which of course is often synonymous with love. Therefore the parting soul requires and relies upon the love and respect from others.

The idea that the parting soul needs reverence from others leads directly into the second reason lines 89 and 90 are so important: Gray states that all souls require love and respect in death. This point is drawn from simply looking closely at the statement, "the parting soul." The phrase "the parting soul" does not contain any social references; it simply refers to the soul of a dead person. It is a well-accepted fact that all humans, regardless of wealth and education, will inevitably die. And as is demonstrated in lines 89 and 90, the dying souls of all humans need love and respect. Just as all humans, poor and rich, entered life as one community filled with "noble rage", in death they once again unite as one community longing for love and respect.

Although all humans die, the poem demonstrates that there exist great differences in the way the noble and poor classes honor their respective dead. Gray briefly describes the way in which the wealthy honor their dead in a section in which he chastises them. Gray asks the nobility, "Can storied urn or animated bust / Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?" (Gray 41-42). Although the question is intended to emphasize the fact that regardless of wealth the nobles too will die, it offers some insight into the tributes the nobles offer to one another. Sculptures and decorative urns containing the ashes of the deceased are used in honoring departed nobles. These expensive tributes, intended to give the deceased soul the love and respect desired, are just another luxury that receiving education has allowed the wealthy. However, the parting soul does not require material objects, merely the reverence that is meant by them.

The poor too, in their own humble way, show respect to the deceased. Speaking of the departed poor, Gray states, "Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect / Some frail memorial still erected nigh, / With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked, / Implores the passing tribute of a sigh" (Gray 77-80). Here, Gray describes the memorials as frail, uncouth, and shapeless, in sharp contrast to the expensive urns and sculptures of the rich, yet still invoking tribute for those who the memorials honor. As stated earlier, the soul requires reverence, not wealthy displays. Therefore, the poor are humbly respecting deceased members of their community with as much reverence as the nobles honor their dead.

Yet, the description of the two communities honoring of departed souls leads the reader to the educated yet poor man Gray introduces at the end of the poem. This unnamed man, by virtue of being educated and poor, lacks an earthly community. He simply does not fit in the two communities described throughout the poem. However, it is unreasonable to think that although he lacks a class of people in life, his soul will not desire the respect and love that unites all people in death. But this leads to the question, if the poor honor the poor in death, and the wealthy honor the wealthy, who will bestow upon the unnamed man, who lacks an earthly community, the reverence his soul desires in death?

Gray directly addresses the educated poor man, and instructs him how to gain the reverence his soul will require in death. Speaking to the unnamed man Gray states, "For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonored dead / Dost in these lines their artless tale relate; / If chance, by lonely Contemplation led, / Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate," (Gray 93-96). Gray first instructs the unnamed individual, here referred to as "thee", to be mindful of the "unhonored dead." The unhonored dead can be viewed as men and women, who like the unnamed man are educated yet not members of the noble class; for if they belonged to the class of the educated wealthy, they would have already been honored by their respective class. Therefore the unnamed man must honor those individuals who died without belonging to a social class. Yet, being mindful of, or remembering those who have no community to honor them in death is not all that the unnamed man must do.

In addition to remembering the "unhonored dead", the unnamed man must also write their epitaphs. Gray instructs the individual to, "in these lines their artless tales relate." Interpreting "these lines" as meaning epitaphs takes a level of inference in reading the poem. Earlier in the poem Gray speaks of the memorials that the poor erect for their dead. In this description he includes a line in which he describes "Their names, their years" (Gray 81) as being placed on a tombstone. A mere ten lines later we read that the unnamed man is instructed to write "artless tales" for the forgotten dead. And in addition, twenty lines later the poem ends with a foreshadowing of the unnamed man’s epitaph. Consequently, since Gray’s insistence that the unnamed man relate the lives of the unhonored dead falls between two references to epitaphs, and since a tombstone is commonly thought of as the way in which dead are remembered, one can infer that Gray means an epitaph on a tombstone when he tells the unnamed man to relate the lives of the unhonored dead in "these lines." Gray has now instructed the man to be mindful of the unhonored dead and relate their lives on tombstone epitaphs, thereby giving the deceased the honor the soul requires.

By honoring those individuals who lack a community to honor them, the unnamed man will in turn be honored himself upon his death by an individual who also lacks an earthly community. Gray claims that, "If Chance, by lonely Contemplation led, / Some kindred spirit will inquire thy fate," (Gray 95-96). Here, chance is personified and described as being "led." Chance being led can be seen as a metaphor for fate because fate itself is often a situation uncannily encountered; a situation meant to be and directed, or led, by a higher power. Gray claims fate will lead a "kindred spirit" to the unnamed man to "inquire thy fate" when he dies. The kindred spirit can easily be interpreted as being educated yet poor, just like the unnamed man. Therefore, Gray states that if the unnamed man remains mindful of those in his similar position of lacking a social class, and honors them by relating their lives in an epitaph, fate will then lead a "kindred spirit" to inquire about him when he dies, thereby giving his soul the remembrance it requires to join all other departing souls in the universal community mankind encounters upon dying.

Despite the focus on ideas such as death, poverty, and class division, which are found throughout "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", the idea that human beings can belong to one universal community creates a sense of hope in the poem. According to Gray, education is the facet of life that originally divides human beings. Therefore, if society were to work to ensure that all people are educated, the initial division amongst humans would be eradicated and humans would live their lives in one community. Yet, even if this is not possible Gray still makes the claim that humans will be united in death. And perhaps this is where the brilliance of the poem lies, Gray is able to instill hope for unity amidst the negative ideas of class division and poverty.

 

Works Cited

 Gray, Thomas. "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." The Longman Anthology of British

 Literature. Ed. David Damrosch. Volume 1C. New York: Addison Wesley, 1999. 2685-2688.