The Solitary Judge

In Thomas Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," There are two groups of people that make up the community represented in the poem: the poor, or marginal society and the powerful or pompous society. Because the speaker himself, is representative of both the marginal and the pompous society, but is not included in their community, he is made the perfect judge to decide which is more admirable and deserves a recompense from Heaven. The community that is made up of the pompous and poor is both elaborately interwoven and distinctly separated by knowledge of the mind versus knowledge of the soul. Because the speaker possesses both of these distinctions, he is isolated from the community, but can act as a silent observer.

The speaker’s solitude is brought to the attention of the reader in the very first stanza: "The curfew tolls the knell of the parting day,/ The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,/ The plowman homeward plods his weary way,/ And leaves the world to darkness and to me" (1-4). It is nightfall and everything is departing the scene, the plowman, the herd of cattle, everyone and everything except the speaker; he is left in solitude. "Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/ And all the air a silent stillness holds," writes Gray in lines 5 and 6, showing his complete isolation. He is left to observe the graveyard by himself, making distinctions between the graves of the two societies. It is as he observes these tombs that the reader is once again directed towards the conclusion that the speaker does not fit within the community of the poem.

The speaker focuses first to the details of the graves themselves that distinguish the lower, marginal class from the upper class. In lines 14 -16 he describes the "rude forefather’s" graves as "heaves of turf in many a mouldering heap,/ [where] Each in his narrow cell for ever laid." A picture of mounds of dirt crudely piled over a dead body waft from this description. The burial is not lavished and moreover, can hardly qualify even as sanitary. This is directly contrasted to the description of the upper-class burial method: "over their tomb no trophies raise,/ Where through the long-drawn isle and fretted vault" (38-39). A glorious tomb is being described, with a high vaulted and spacious corridors, quite unlike the "narrow cells" of the marginal. These differences are made apparent by the speaker’s description, and although they are correlated, they are not what truly separates the two groups and divides the community.

It is made evident by the speaker that only the pompous society has the knowledge to read; the knowledge of the mind. He says of the poor, "But knowledge to their eyes her ample page/ Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;/ Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,/ And froze the genial current of the soul" (49-52). Showing that they were never fully educated because their economic and social status did not allow. This idea of their lack of education is furthered by their inability to read and write. When describing the headstone erected over a poor person’s grave, the speaker observes, "Some frail memorial still erected nigh,/ With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked/...Their name s, their years spelt by th’ unlettered muse,/ The place of fame and elegy supply" (88-82). Showing the dearth of literacy through the simplicity of the grave is once again greatly contrasted to the upper-classes’ abundance of literacy. The headstones of the higher society "Boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,/ And all that beauty and wealth e’er gave" (33-34). Upon the graves are written their genealogy and ancestry, what titles they obtained, and how much wealth they accumulated in their lifetime. Their ability to read is depicted in lines 31 and 32, "Nor Grandeur hear, with a disdainful smile,/ The short and simple annals of the poor." It is clear that the upper-class (Grandeur) are literate if they are able to understand the annals of the poor enough to mock and disdain them. Knowledge of the mind is what the literacy of the powerful and pompous shows them to have, but it is not the only knowledge the speaker observes within the community.

The marginal society may not possess educational knowledge, but they have knowledge none-the-less. However, the knowledge of the poor is represented through their emotion and sensibility; it is knowledge of the soul. Mindfulness of emotions can be described both as an acute consciousness of feeling and a shared sensibility, this is what is observed in the poor by the speaker. Instead of an elaborate tomb and eloquent epitaph, the poor remember their dead in a different, more sensible manner. They "cast one longing, ling’ring look behind" (88), and shed a tear for their dead; they feel the pains of sorrow and melancholy. A tear is a very important symbol of sensibility and especially melancholy, because it comes from within the body, it is the result of the knowledge of suffering and inner-pain. The pompous do not experience this melancholy. When one of them dies, as the speaker notices, instead of shedding "Some pious drops [which] the closing eye requires" (90), they sing an anthem that "swells the note of praise" (40). They refuse to pine after the death of a loved one, instead they sing of their rich life, where as the poor internalize their feelings and openly express their melancholy through weeping.

The speaker himself is a very melancholic individual, as shown in his own imagined epitaph on line 120: "And Melancholy marked him for her own." Therefor it can be said that he possesses knowledge of the soul similar to the marginal society. However, it is also clear from the epitaph that he has knowledge of the mind as well like the powerful society: "Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth" (119). He is literate, (as his profession is poetry) yet sensible; he sees both sides of the spectrum. This qualifies him to be a good judge as to which society is more admirable. Although his admonition for the pompous and veneration of the marginal is hinted throughout the elegy, it is especially driven home in his epitaph when he describes Heaven’s recompense. Earlier he speaks of the lack of education of the poor as a blessing. He details the analogy that within the marginal society their are probably some who, given the mental knowledge, could have become great leaders or poets such as Cromwell and Milton. "Full many a gem of purest serene,/ The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;/ Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air." This passage describes the greatness of the poor, as unseen in the eyes of the world due to their status. Not only was their greatness squelched by poverty, but their capability to be evil was as well, as is depicted in lines 65-68: "Their lot forbade: nor circumcised alone/ Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;/ Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,/ And shut the gates of mercy on mankind." The speaker idealizes the poor not only for their attention to sensibility and feeling, but for their naiveity and humility shown by the "noiseless tenor of their way" (76). This idealization comes through strongly in his epitaph, in which he finally concludes that because the poor are denied power and riches and given a simplistic life of sensibility, Heaven will bestow upon them a recompense.

The recompense is a reward or retribution from Heaven in the form of a friend, given in return for the pain of mindfulness and melancholy. This is engraved upon his own imagined epitaph: "Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere, / Heaven did a recompense as largely send:/ He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,/ He gained from Heav’n (‘twas all he wished) a friend" (121-124). The speaker imagined that a kindred spirit was visiting his grave after he was deceased. This kindred spirit was Heaven’s recompense for his shared sensibility of mindfulness. This is the Speaker’s ideal, and this is the recompense that he believes is bestowed upon the poor. In the end, when death comes for both the powerful and the marginal, pomp and power will have gained the "higher" society nothing, but the mindfulness and melancholy of the marginal society will have gained them a friend.