Paper 2: Writing and Reading in Gray’s "Elegy"

 

"Ev’n from the tomb the voice of nature cries,

Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires."

 

The word elegy is Greek for "lament." An elegy itself is "a poem on death or on a serious loss"; traditionally it is a "sustained meditation expressing sorrow and, frequently, an explicit or implied consolation". Thomas Gray’s "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" portrays the attempts of two communities, the Poor and Proud, to immortalize the dead using artistic representation (sculpture, prose, and poetry). But because they ultimately focus on material or external display, the poetry of both groups fails to successfully offer consolation to the individual. In demonstrating Mindfulness of the human need to be remembered, the "Elegy’s" speaker or poet emerges as the only individual capable of offering a sustained form of consolation.

The aristocratic community, the "Proud", use writing to demonstrate their power. Their tombs are decorated with "storied urn" and "animated bust" (40), objects designed with "Flatt’ry" to "soothe the dull cold ear of Death" (44). Through writing, the Proud seek to defy Death’s finality and call back the "fleeting breath" (42): their poetry is used in vain to "provoke the silent dust" (43) and beckon the soul to return to its "mansion" (42). As individuals who seek to be remembered with "Honor" (43) the Proud use symbols of Grandeur to validate their self-importance: "o’er their tomb"(38) there are "trophies raise[d]" (38). Gray uses the register of pomp in images such as "the long-drawn isle" (39), "fretted vault" (39), and "pealing anthem" (40) to emphasize the Proud’s dedication to material and ceremonial display. But rather than prompting the onlooker to become mindful of the absence rendered by the departed soul, the Proud attempt to ostentatiously fill its void with material objects. Instead of recognizing and reflecting upon that which has been lost, the "pealing anthem" (40) seeks to conjure an inflated sense of what the deceased had accomplished and acquired.

Because its emphasis is on material display, the writing of the proud ultimately fails to offer any form of consolation to the individual. Although the Proud’s "Muse" (72) inspires poetry which offers the "place of fame and elegy" (82) for the deceased, its function is to boast rather than sympathize or comfort. As the poet asserts, "the shrine of Luxury and Pride" (71) is heaped with "incense kindled at the Muse’s flame"(72). This incense symbolizes the power of poetry to construct its own reality: the "incense kindled at the Muse’s flame" (72) both confounds the senses of the observer. Moreover, the incense emits a visible cloud as well as a veil of effluvium, distorting spectator’s ability to clearly perceive the world. Essentially, then, the Muse creates Memory by producing the environment in which individuals are remembered. Rather than demonstrating any sense of mindfulness of the deceased, the poetry of the Proud becomes the mechanism through which their legacy of Grandeur is perpetuated. Ultimately, the Proud give "the boast of heraldry, the pomp of power" (33) priority over the soul itself; their poetry is used to obscure the "conscious truth" (69) of the perished individual, rather than reveal it.

Unlike the proud, the poor use writing to document rather than display the life and passing of a soul. The Poor use "short and simple annals" (32) to record their history which by definition are meant to chronologically document events as opposed to creatively represent them. In place of "storied urn or animated bust" (41), their "frail memorial[s]" (78) are erected with "uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture" (79) demonstrating that recognition of the deceased supercedes pristine representation: it is more important that the soul be commemorated than that it be commemorated excellently. Instead of noble elegy and "place of fame" (82) the Poor’s "unlettered muse" (81) merely incites the humble stonecutter to inscribe each tombstone with "Their name" and "years" (81). Thus rather than perpetuating a false image of grandeur the poor use poetry to demonstrate that which is universally shared by all people: life and death within a given stretch of time.

In addition to documenting the life of the individual, writing is used to aid the parting soul in dying. Despite their meager position within society, the Poor nevertheless desire to be remembered: "e’en the[ir] bones" (77) cannot help but "cast one longing ling’ring look behind" (88). Like the Proud, the Poor are reluctant to fall "prey" (85) to "dumb Forgetfulness" (85). As recompense for its inevitable resignation to death, their "uncouth rhymes"(79) and "holy text[s]" (83) help "teach the rustic moralist to die" (84). Thus poetry is used to console the parting soul, though its consolation is ultimately insufficient because it fails to recognize the living.

But more than to assist the dying soul, the Poor use writing to garner an emotional response from passersby. The ultimate function of the frail inscriptions is to "implore[] the passing tribute of a sigh" (80). As the speaker asserts, the parting soul "relies" (84) upon the sympathy of "some fond breast" (84); "the closing eye requires" (90) the demonstration of "Some pious drops" (90). These external emotions serve to assure the soul that it will be remembered. Thus unlike the Proud whose emphasis is merely material, the poor place value on the immaterial relationship between the departing soul and its living counterpart.

Yet in relying upon the external or material manifestation of the human tear the poor fail to recognize the internal need which it represents. Despite its seeming interest in that which is internal, the "parting soul" (89) is nevertheless more reliant upon the tear itself versus the Mindful relationship which it signifies. Moreover, in requiring some external manifestation of human emotion the "closing eye" (90) demonstrates that its relationship to the "fond breast" (89) is based wholly on material expression. While the tear itself is external evidence of an internal consciousness, it is not recognized by the Poor soul as such. Nevertheless, the "pious drops" (90) evince that "Ev’n from the tomb the voice of nature cries" (91) out to be remembered; "Even in our ashes live" (92) some evidence of that which once existed, though no longer is.

Because he possesses mindfulness, the poet recognizes the Poor’s inherent desire to be remembered and so uses his "Elegy" as a means of consolation; because he is "mindful of th’unhonored dead" (93) the poet feels compelled to "relate…their artless tale" (94). Yet in offering his consolation in the form of a poem, he ironically excludes those (the Poor) who are the subject of his Contemplation: as demonstrated by the "hoary-headed swain" (97), most are unable to read. Ironically, though the poet, in his lines, propels them to a position where they might "read their his’ry in a nation’s eyes" (64), they lack the ability to read. The state of Mindfulness which allows the poet to identify and relate their "tale" (94) requires two important preconditions: detachment from materiality (solitude) as well as Knowledge or education. Although the Poor possess this state of detachment (as testified by their values), they lack the knowledge which leads ultimately to mindfulness. Just as their poverty "repressed their noble rage" (51) and ultimately "froze the genial current of the[ir] soul" (52), their ignorance prevents them from recognizing their own need to be remembered.

Though he fails to offer consolation to the poor, the poet ultimately uses writing as a means of consoling those individuals who are mindful of that which has been lost. Moreover, he uses this mindfulness to establish a community between poet and reader. Unlike the material communities of the poor and proud, the community which the poet erects is based wholly on human mindfulness. In the end, the poet’s "kindred spirit" (96) is led by "Contemplation" (95) to his Epitaph. Ironically, the poet anticipates this in his own Epitaph, stating, "He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear, / He gained from Heav’n (‘twas all he wished) a friend" (123-24). In a limited sense, the "friend" (124) which the poet gains is the "kindred spirit" (96); but in a broader sense, this friendship is extended as a form of recompense to any soul who "by lonely Contemplation led" (95) reads the tale he now relates. Thus the recompense which the poet both receives and offers extends beyond the boundaries of time to include both the living and the dead.

In choosing to present a poem within a poem, Gray is reflecting upon the function of both the poet and poetry itself. Ultimately, the poet’s function, his consolation to the reader, is as an instrument of self-reflectivity, recognizing what is human about human nature. In his Contemplation, the poet makes us conscious of our own Memory: by bringing into focus what we remember, he makes us conscious of how we remember. The effect is that we become conscious of our own consciousness; each poem is but a "frail memorial" (77), contemplating the absence, commemorating that which has been lost.