Modes of Legacy in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

Thomas Gray’s defense of "the short and simple annals of the poor" (32) in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is built upon his distinction between the relative merits of written legacy, which he associates with the particular preservation, and oral legacy, which he associates with the preservation of one’s nature. The registers that support this distinction are, for written legacy, reading and writing, and, for oral legacy, speech, breath, and custom. The essence of this distinction depends also upon the registers of life and death, the image of fire, and the multi-perspective form. The argument that accompanies this distinction is that the written legacy of "storied urn" (41) or epitaph cannot "call the fleeting breath" "back to its mansion" (42) (mansion referring here to mortal encasement (i.e. the body or world)) because they are concerned only with the particulars of a man, his "merits" (125) and "frailties" (126). However, in the oral legacy and living tradition, "the voice of nature cries" "from the tomb" (91) ("nature" being, as I will argue, human nature) in the sense that the traditional and daily rituals of man, his "wonted fires", "live" in the "ashes" (92) of the living community. Oral legacy is the "recompense" (122) for the "prey" of "dumb Forgetfulness"(85), and is, from the standpoint of the dead, superior to the "trophies" of "Mem’ry" (38).

This oral legacy operates in a tradition established in the first 28 lines. Here we see a medium conducive to sustaining tradition: the perpetual relationship between man and nature. These two forces are in harmony with each other. Nature "yield[s]" (25) and "bow[s]" (28) to men who in turn are "jocund" as "they drive their team afield" (27). The nighttime rituals revolving around house and family in lines 21-24 balance this daytime activity.

This tradition, which is the life cycle of the rural family, is told from the point of view of the dead in lines 17-28. These are the things that they may no longer do; the living "plowman" is the presumed inheritors of this way of life. However when we saw the plowman he was surrounded by images indicative of death. This method of giving a lively context to the dead and morbid ones to the living begins to suggest the role of the dead in the living world which is the foundation of the climax of the poem (lines 91-93).

This register of death in which the only two living figures of the poem section (I will be referring to lines 1-92 as the poem section) of the "Elegy" are introduced is built using adjectives and images of fading. We see the plowman "plod[ing] his weary way" (3) home as the "curfew tolls the knell of parting day" (1). The register of twilight, of "glimmering landscape", is clearly associated with death. The "knell" (1) ("the sound of a bell rung slowly and solemnly, as immediately after a death or at a funeral … fig. A sound announcing the death of a person or the passing away of something" [OED]) most literally implies a connection between fading and death with the "curfew" and "parting day" (1) serving to associate the states of night and day with those of death and life. Fittingly, the living figure of the "plowman" (3) "leaves the world to darkness and to me" (4) ("me" being the writer of the elegy), both "darkness" and "me" (as he will soon join the dead) serving as portents of death.

The "curfew," while introducing the register of fading and death, also introduces the important image of fire. It is appropriate that both images should be introduced in simultaneously in the first noun of the poem section because both images pertain to life and death and both images are reconciled in the last line of the poem section of the "Elegy." The curfew, which divides the world of night and day, also signifies the extinguishing of fire; it was a "regulation or force in medieval Europe by which at a fixed hour in the evening, indicated by the ringing of a bell, fires were to covered or extinguished." [OED]. That bell was, of course, the knell and therefore the image of fire already begins to take on qualities of the register of death. The extinguishing of fire accompanies the parting of day, and for those "rude forefathers" (16), in their "narrow cell[s] for ever laid" (15,) who occupy the night, "no more the blazing hearth shall burn" (21). Fire is associated with the rustic life and its extinguishment with death.

The association of fire and death is the basis for the climax in lines 91-93. These three lines form the climax because they contain the formation of the defense of the legacy of the poor, which is built upon a surprising reversal of the relationship between two important images, and because of the abrupt and unexpected change of speaker between lines 92-93. This defense is stated clearly in lines 91-92; "Ev’n from the tomb the voice of nature cries, / Ev’n in our ashes life their wonted fires" (91-92). The use of "nature" is deliberately ambiguous; we have seen both the nature of man outlined earlier, and in those same lines nature (in the sense of the natural world) was evoked. The ambiguity capitalizes on the harmonious relationship between man and nature that I discussed earlier, and it reminds us that his death does not take him away from the world in which he lived. Furthermore, this relationship is the basis for his livelihood, existence, and tradition. The "voice of nature" calling from the tomb is man’s nature expressing itself after death; his nature still speaks, still has breath, in that it is maintained in the lives of the living. His nature will be passed on to those who follow, the children who "[ran] to lisp their sire’s return" (23) (another passage in which we see the voice). "Voice", rather than writing, is the form of this communication. This life in death is expanded upon in line 92. Here, where fire had been associated with life, and its extinguishment with death, the opposite is now true. I had mentioned earlier how in lines 1-28, when the legacy of tradition was being established, that the living (i.e. the plowman and the poet) inhabited worlds indicative of death and vice versa. This imagery of course hinted at the defense being made by the poet, that the legacy of the poor is superior because the dead remain in the world of the living. We, implied by "our", now have ashes, while the dead, implied by "their" (92), have fire.

Through this life/death contradiction the poet claims that the customs and traditions in everyday life remain connected to the dead. The fires are described as "wonted" ("Accustomed, customary, usual.") [OED]. These "wonted fires" remind us of the other images of fire: "blazing hearth" (21) or the fires implied by "curfew" which were both associated with custom through their depiction as part of a man’s daily cycle. These customary fires "live" in the "ashes" (92) of the living. In addition to the contradiction of the dead being associated with force ("fire") and life ("live" along with, of course, the aspects of this contradiction present earlier in the poem as I have argued for), a consuming force exists within its own remains, the final and most elusive contradiction. If we speak in terms of a legacy of tradition, than the ashes would be the remains of the "forefathers" or the ancestors, and remains are what a new generation will inherit. In this sense, the ashes are the remains left to us by the dead, which up to this point has been tradition. So within the tradition passed on to us, the forces that created them exist; the dead exist within their own legacy.

Images of writing and concrete legacy oppose this idea throughout the poem as the legacy of "Mem’ry" (38). She preserves through the high forms of "storied urn," "animated bust" (41), and "elegy" (82). The idea here is that specifics are preserved instead of nature. Only the great have names in this poem. The "rude forefathers," the narrator, the "hoary-headed swain," and the "plowman" are all resigned to anonymity- the mark of "dumb Forgetfulness" (85). The only names are those of the great, who have a "hist’ry" (65) or a recorded legacy: "Hampden" (57), "Milton" (59), and "Cromwell" (60). Had "Knowledge" "[unrolled] her ample page" to one of the undiscovered talents amongst the poor, they might have earned a name. As it stands the only place where the poor are remembered in writing is on their gravestones, but even there, it is only the "unlettered muse" who "[spells] their name, their years … and many a holy text" (80-83). In addition to the adjective "unlettered" we are given other signs of the poor’s lack of skill in writing or art in lines 78-79 in which "frail memorial … uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture" contrast "trophies" (38), "elegy" (82), and "animated bust" (41). Compare this with the "Muse" whose "flame [kindles the] incense" with which the great "heap the shrine of Luxury and "Pride" (71-72). The Muse is capitalized in 72 indicating a "greater degree of personification" ("Muse" [OED]) than the unlettered muse; like "Milton" and "Hampden," the "Muse[‘s]" name is more proper, more specific, further separating the two classes. Also the imagery of lines 70-71 ("heap the shrine of luxury," "incense") hints at paganism and decadence compared to the simplicity and piousness of "many a holy text … that teach the rustic moralist to die" (83-84). The writing and legacy of the lettered world better serves its owner in life than death death, and therefore is less apt to from a meaningful legacy. This is why "all that wealth e’er gave, / awaits alike the inevitable hour" (34-35).

The poet’s death provides a demonstration of this argument. The transition to a new unidentified narrator initially completes the climax of the poem. Following this point we see the fate of the poet, who serves as an interesting case to the argument he has just advanced. For although "Knowledge to [his] eyes her ample page" did "unroll" (49-50) he is "to fortune and fame unknown" (118). This narrator that has now assumed the voice claims that for the poet the "swain may say" (97). The narrator qualifies the poet as being "mindful of th’unhonored dead" (93), but this qualification is not, as could be read, the reason why "some hoary-headed swain may say" (97). This qualification is given in order to introduce the Kindred spirit who gives reason for the swain’s speech. The swain’s speech in turn serves to prove the poets argument by showing this hybrid of class (he has knowledge without fortune) benefits more from the legacy given to him by the venerable (hoary: "Ancient; venerable from age, time-honoured.") [OED] swain than he does "The Epitaph". Once this opposition is realized, of the poet’s section, his "lines" (94) must necessarily be considered to be, in a sense, a written document.

However we cannot forget that we initially listened to the poet as if he were living. When we read poetry it is more like the act of listening than reading. Obviously the defining characteristics of poetry (meter, rhymes, devices such as alliteration) are based on principles of sound. Because of this the poem section has two functions, as the living voice of the poet, and as a written document. We should also remember that the poem section is a product of the poet’s life and as such may be seen as a voice of life.

At this point we can no begin to see the final significance of the association that I argued for earlier of the living with the world of the dead and vice-versa. I had argued that the only living figures in the first 28 lines of the poem section were associated with the registers of death and that the activities of the living were only understood through the dead. I further made the point that this notion comes to fruition in 91-92, where we understood that the way in which the dead lived their lives defines the present. In this sense our habits and customs were the products of their lives, the "ashes" of their "fires" (92) and since the nature of man, the way in which he lives his life, is his true essence, the dead persist in the world of the living. Now that the poet is dead, his notions of legacy are put to the test. In the swain’s comments, we see a startling picture of the poet: he is "por[ing] ," "smiling," "Mutt’ring," "drooping," "crazed," "crossed" (104-108); he is, in short, full of life. Once he dies, the swain "misse[s] him on the ‘customed hill, / Along the heath and near his favorite tree" (109-110). In the poem section, the poet is living and is, as discussed earlier, associated with registers of death. Once he is dead in the swain’s speech, we are able to see the significance of his life- his "love," his "care," his actions, and his relationship with nature, just like the image of the dead in lines 16-28. Furthermore the living swain now associates the poets life with the living world around him; the hill is now "the ‘customed hill" and the tree "his favorite tree." The poet’s nature and custom live on in the land, the people, and the "kindred spirit" (96) who, in this potent reframing of the poem, is now in the role of the living poet.

The poet receives the legacy of the poor, however, he also experiences that of the rich. As I had mentioned earlier, the poet, although "to fortune and fame unknown" (118), he did have the riches of knowledge. We know this of course through his fine poetry and it is stated on his gravestone: "Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth" (119) The poem concludes then with an Epitaph that was surely not the product of the "unlettered muse" (81). Even if it was, the notion of this epitaph being a separate legacy than that of the poor is sufficiently established in line 115-116: "Approach and read (for thou can’st read) the lay, / Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn." The swain and his world are separated from this other world by their illiteracy. This legacy is for a different, literate, class. The "aged thorn" which has grown over the gravestone contrasts the living, and therefore more youthful image just presented by the swain, reinforcing the class distinction. This contrast is shared by the other document of the poem, the poem section which, when seen as a written document that preserves something of the poem, is inferior in its communication of the poet’s energy and love for life and nature.

The epitaph, in light of all that has preceded it, essentially admits to this inferiority. It can only say that his "bounty" was "large" and his "soul sincere," but in the legacy passed on to kindred spirits and the people of his community, we see how his bounty and sincerity have affected the world. Effect is a much greater legacy than mere record, even if its donations are anonymous. Lines 121-124, in the context of the poem section and the epitaph alone, cannot have any real meaning; we can determine neither what his "recompense" was nor who his "friend" was. In light of the incident with the swain and the kindred spirit their exist many candidates (like the swain, or the kindred spirit, or nature, or melancholy) for his "friend" and "recompense," although ambiguity still remains. Finally, the epitaph closes by asking the reader, "No farther seek his merits to disclose, / Or draw his frailties from their dread abode" (125-126). I argued earlier that the role of history was to record men’s merits and frailties, the specifics about their individual character. Allowing this, the epitaph abandons the idea that there is any point to such enquiry since the true fate of that aspect of our nature, although maybe remembered, does not live on. Its destiny is to await the judgment of God. The legacy of the poor attempts to preserve that aspect of men which is fit to persist after death, while the legacy afforded by "Mem’ry"(38) preserves that aspect which has no hope of surviving the grave.


 Works Cited

1. Gray, Thomas. "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch & Stuart Sherman. Longman; New York. 1999. pgs. 2685-2688.

2. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2000. Oxford University Press. 12 December, 2000