Historical Writing versus Poetic Writing

During the lifetime of Thomas Gray, the role of the poor, rural class in Britain was eclipsed in the shadow of the heraldry of the upper class. Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" addresses this problem. Gray chooses a speaker for his poem who does not belong to any particular segment of his community for "he gained from Heav’n(’twas all he wished) a friend"(124), signifying that on Earth he did not have a friend. His ability not to belong to any part of the class system of his day allows him to be a part of all of society and an objective speaker for his time. Through him, Gray is able to contrast the image of the rural poor in historical writings with their image in poetic writings to show the universality of death that provides honor for the poor over the noble community.

The historical documents in the elegy signify the inability of the poor to be a productive part of the heraldic society. Line thirty-two of the poem presents the historical image of the "short and simple annals of the poor." Annals are recorded history. Describing the "annals of the poor" as "short and simple" indicates the place of the poor in the historical world. The poor have done nothing of importance; their histories have little substance. Yet, the speaker of the poem states that "nor Grandeur hear, with a disdainful smile,/the short and simple annals of the poor"(31-32). A smile usually signifies happiness or pleasure, but here it is juxtaposed with the word "disdain." "Disdainful," according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means "feeling of contempt for what is beneath one". Grandeur, being the one with the smile, feels that the histories of the poor do not merit her time. The poor have no connection to grandeur, even existing below the term itself, which makes grandeur a function and symbol of the rich upper class. The speaker admonishes Grandeur for death comes to all and "The paths of glory lead but to the grave"(36) where the upper class will no longer be able to look down upon the poorer class. Through the speaker, Gray promotes a time when the poor will be recognized by humanity. Through poems like his, the poor will be heard; and poetic works that include all walks of life will provide a history that historical writings will not.

In addition to the historical world, the world of knowledge shuts itself off from the rural world through the absence of sharing: "but knowledge to their eyes her ample page,/Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;"(49-50). The writing on the "ample page" belongs to knowledge and "their eyes" are the eyes of the poor class. "Ample" and "rich" fill the page of knowledge to show the great abundance that knowledge can give to a person. However, the abundance of knowledge that the reader will obtain are "the spoils of time" and may not be considered a good thing. So, the speaker of the poem shows that exclusion of the poor from the school of knowledge keeps them from knowing the evils of man: ignorance is bliss. Therefore, that which looks like a prejudice of the poor is a saving grace to their ability to lead a simple life, which is the valued life to the speaker. Further in the poem, two things present themselves as being unapproachable to the poor, "Chill penury repressed their noble rage, / And froze the genial current of the soul"(52-53). "Noble rage" refers to the act of anger as linked to the noble class, which would be the act of war. "The genial currency of the soul" refers to the practice of heraldry to assume one’s role in society. Here, it assumes the use of the family heritage, genial, to buy, not earn, a place in Heaven where the eternal soul will exist. The speaker shows that the poor do not worry about the ideas of war and heraldry because they are unaware, or unmindful, of knowledge, which brings these ideas. Through their ignorance, then, the speaker elevates the poor class above the elite heraldry of the upper class.

The poor class also rises above the rich class in terms of the hereafter in other areas, literacy and fame. The poor class cannot "read their history in a nation’s eyes"(64) because "their lot forbade"(65) it. The literal idea is that the poor class cannot read being illiterate. Nowhere in the elegy do we find an image of a country folk trying to learn to read; instead, the poor are content with their inability and their simplistic life. Literacy also assumes that a person has the time to learn to read and to record the events that make a written history. The lives of the poor are spent toiling at the land during the day and resting during the evening. Their constant labor prevents them from reading and recording a history let alone building a "nation." The world of recorded history is a luxury of the noble class who trace their position in society from their personal recorded history. The inability of the poor to read also links directly to their lack of fame. From literacy stems a greater understanding of the world and a desire to gain more out of life in terms of money and social status. Though good things can come from fame and the lifestyle of the nobility; such as, "senates to command" or the rule of a "smiling land", a downside also exists. The state of greatness and peace that a person of nobility enjoys stems from a "slaughter to the throne"(67) and the need to "shut the gates of mercy on mankind"(68). While the poor are not given the chance to do the great things in life, they also are not given the chance to commit the crimes that position and power can create. So, the speaker presents an image of a class who can neither rise above nor sink below their position. The inability of the poor to "read their history in a nation’s eyes" is both a literal translation and a deeper translation of the role of the rural community in British society during Gray’s writing of this poem.

Line seventy-seven of the elegy begins a transition from the images of writing in historical documents to images in literature; i.e., a poem, this elegy which signify the place, literature, in which the poor will be find honor. "Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect/ some frail memorial still erected nigh,/With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked"(77-79) signifies that even the poor classes have a need to memorialize their deceased brethren. Though their histories may not be as great as those of the noble community, as shown by the word "yet" to begin the passage, they do receive an elegy. The elegy though unpolished provides that which an elegy should provide, "a passing sigh". Even though the elegies of the nobility and the poor are different in nature, the fact remains that both classes have elegies because of the universality of death. Elegies, a form of literature, provide a connection among all of humanity for even the poor are mindful of the necessity of an elegy. What is placed in the elegy is the history of the individual. A name, a year of life, and a residence stated commonly in the poem signify that the history of the poor will be recorded but in the literature of the times rather than in its historical annals.

Gray, the poet, will be a recorder of the histories of the poor, in this case, through the "Elegy Written in a Church Courtyard." In the lines, "For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonored dead/ Dost in these lines their artless tale relate"(93-94), "thee" refers to the speaker of the poem who is Gray as shown by "in these lines" which refer to the entire poem that is being told. The speaker poet is the one who records the lives of the poor, "the unhonored dead." The poem is an elegy to the whole rural community whose image Gray wishes to preserve because of the simple lifestyles they lead for "Along the cool sequestered vale of life/They kept the noiseless tenor of their way"(75-76). If historical annals will not record the lives of the rural poor, then Gray and other writers will present their simple lives through the language of poetry.

Finally, the concluding "Epitaph" states the theme of "Elegy Written in a Church Courtyard" and its relation to presenting the history of the poor through poetic writings. The speaker elegizes himself not by showing his great or evil deeds but by showing his recognition in Heaven where ultimately all are equal. His insight allows him to recognize the merits of the poor and his desire to relate their story to the world. Through the "Elegy Written in a Church Courtyard," two elegies present themselves, one to Gray, the speaker, and one to the poor class whose histories he will help record.

 

Works Cited

Gray, Thomas. "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." in Damrosch, David. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 1C The Restoration and the 18th Century. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc. 1999.