The men and women who die fighting for their ideals or standing up for what they believe, the "heroic" members of society, have long been honored by poets in their prose. But Thomas Gray takes a different approach in his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," using his narrator, a lonely man who wanders the cemetery at night, to mourn for the "unhonored dead" (93), the men, women and children who die quietly, unceremoniously, whose deaths barely cause a ripple in the grander scheme of things. Gray argues that it is not the "storied urn or animated bust" (41), displayed in honor of the men determined to make a name for themselves and be revered in death for their bravery, that causes folks to reflect on life and mourn for the dead; it is the poor mans headstone, engraved simply with the deceaseds name, date of birth, date of death, and a passage or two from the Bible, that "implores the passing tribute of a sigh" (80).
During his nighttime wanderings, Grays narrator takes the time to reflect on what is written on every grave, and what those few words convey about the person buried below. He is truly the only one of his community "mindful of th unhonored dead" (93), knowing that all these men and women want is to be remembered with some show of emotion by those still living. The narrator, "mindful" as he is, cries for the dead, for the few simple words, so carefully carved, describing the dead, and, giving them the emotional remembrance they want, is therefore recompensed by Heaven upon his death with the one thing he has always wanted: a friend.
While he cries for the poor men and women who died without recognition, Grays narrator also becomes their protector, making sure the people in the country churchyard are not overshadowed by the rich and powerful dead, who make a grand ceremony out of death. In fact, the narrator even goes so far as to question what people get out of living such rich and extravagant lives. "The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, / And all that beauty, all that wealth eer gave, / Awaits alike th inevitable hour. / The paths of glory lead but to the grave" (33-36). As the narrator sees it, all life eventually ends in death, and seeking a position of power, where one is heavily scrutinized and in the public eye all the time, only hastens that process. One who strives to be a crusader or a martyr is going to make a lot of waves and probably anger a fair number of people, thus most likely resulting in an inevitable, untimely death. The smarter choice, according to the narrator, is to stay in the country, have a nice family, work on the farm, and live an overall quiet life, dying peacefully when the time is right.
The quiet country farmers may be happier than the heroic rebels in life, but, as the narrator suggests, in death they are much sadder. "For them no more blazing hearth shall burn, / Or busy housewife ply her evening care: / No children run to lisp their sires return, / Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share" (21-24). The country farmers live good lives because of all they have: satisfying work, warm homes, loving families, etc. In death, however, they have nothing except their "narrow cell beneath those rugged elms" (15, 13). In contrast, the doomed martyrs live lives geared toward success, heroism, and courage. When they are gone, they lose the dream of what might have been. "Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid / Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire; / Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed, / Or walked to ecstasy the living lyre" (45-48). The rich and powerful mens losses are full of "might have," "perhaps," and so on. These losses are not actual, tangible losses. They are unfulfilled dreams and hopes for what could have taken place. When looked at next to the substantial list of the countrymans losses, a list of very tangible items and very fulfilled dreams and hopes, its no wonder the narrator chooses to give his pity to the countrymen.
The narrator also gives his pity to the dead poor men because no one else, other than their families, mourns for them. Countless tales will be told about the hero, by many people, complete strangers as well as close family friends. He will live forever through these stories. The hero will go down in history and be famous for whatever feat he accomplished. Statues will be erected in his honor, paintings of his infamous moment will be hung in museums around the world. No one will ever forget his name. However, the poor farmer was known only by his family and the members of his community. His family will always remember him, and share stories about him for years to come, but eventually memories will begin to fade and the stories will become few and far between, until, after several generations have passed, the dead man is just a name and a couple of dates written in the family Bible. The members of the community will remember the dead farmer for a while, perhaps share some stories in the local pub, but before long someone else will have died or gotten married or had a baby and the dead man will be all but forgotten by his fellow farmers.
The narrator is very aware of this sad tale of forgetfulness, and of the fact that he is probably the only member of the community who visits the cemetery on a regular basis and treasures it as much as he does.
Yet evn 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.
Their name, their years, spelt by th unlettered muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die (77-84).
The narrator really takes the time to read each gravestone, each name, date and epitaph. He notices the shapelessness of the gravestones. The narrator knows that the stone cutter (the "unlettered muse") is illiterate and probably just copies what he has to carve from the Bible or a piece of paper. These are not the observations of a man who just strolls through the churchyard every once and a while. These are the observations of a man who has learned everything he can about the graveyard because he spends every night there. This is a man who wants to know who these people buried in the churchyard were, and he is probably the only one in the community with that desire.
As he is the cemeterys only regular visitor, the narrator sees it as his duty to give the dead what it is they need. The narrator believes that, even in death, people need to be shown emotion so they know they have not been forgotten about. "On some fond breast the parting soul relies, / Some pious drop the closing eye requires; / Evn from the tomb the voice of nature cries, / Evn in our ashes live their wonted fires" (89-92). Though the body may get buried and rot away after death, according to the narrator, the soul hangs around and needs some reassurance from time to time that he has not been totally forgotten. The narrator is more than happy to provide this reassurance, and so, during his nighttime wanderings through the churchyard, the narrator will cry both to and for the souls of the dead poor men, the "unhonored dead."
It is this show of emotion that marks the narrator as a compassionate man, and it is his nightly wanderings through the cemetery that marks him as a lonely man. Most of what happens to the narrator happens only in his mind, such as his kindred spirit happening upon the narrators headstone and reading about Heaven rewarding him with his one true wish, a friend. None of that actually happens, but it gives the reader a good indication of what it is the narrator wishes to get out of his compassionate encounters with the graveyard. He wants a friend and he wants there to be a kindred spirit out there who will read the epitaph on his headstone and shed a few tears for his dead soul.
Sherman, Stuart et al. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., New York: 1999.