Gray’s Social Commentary: Unity through Knowledge

During the mid eighteenth century capitalism was on the rise and class separation remained, for the most part, unchanged as the poor begot the poor, and the rich begot the rich. In addition, the rich were beginning to move to the city, which was becoming more and more cosmopolitan. The poor were therefore left to work in the fields, and continued their old ways as the rich made all the advances in technology, literature, and government. In Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," representations of the written word reveal how the upper classes of the English community dishonorably assert power over the poor by abusing their inherent superior knowledge, the one human quality that should, and ultimately does, unify all of mankind.

Gray symbolically reveals class division in England in the first three stanzas, before he even begins to discuss the division openly. The setting of "the knell of parting day" parallels the division between the high and the low classes of England. Through his description of the plowman heading home for the night, Gray suggests that the day belongs to the lower class farmer. As he goes home for the night "now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight…. Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower." In the darkness, the tower is the only thing visible in the landscape. Its ivy mantle identifies the tower as a symbol for the learned upper class of England. The night, therefore, belongs to the upper class. The assigning of night and day to their respective classes is interesting because it implies that the lower class can not survive without work (associated with day) and that the upper class can not survive without play (associated with night). By the end of the third stanza, then, it becomes clear that Gray is sympathetic towards the working classes.

Gray continues his sympathetic tone in the next four stanzas. In addition, though, he goes further with his symbols of work and play according to the time of day. As the rich play at night, the poor must still press on with their work, as Gray states "For them [the dead rude forefathers] no more…busy housewife ply her evening care." Not only can they not always relax at night, but their wives must also help out to keep house. Gray begins to reveal the relationship between the two classes in the following stanzas. Immediately after his statement of "How jocund did they drive their team afield! How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!" Gray implies that the upper classes have no respect for their ‘inferiors.’ This implication is achieved through the stanza "Let not Ambition mock their useful toil, Their homely joys, and destiny obscure; Nor Grandeur hear, with a disdainful smile, The short and simple annals of the poor." Ambition is capitalized here to represent the upper classes. The phrase ‘useful toil’ again shows Gray’s sympathy for the poor. Grandeur is also capitalized to represent the upper classes. Its ‘disdainful smile’ finally reveals how the rich generally view the poor. However, the source of their disdain, "the short and simple annals of the poor," is much more important to the poem as a whole than the disdain itself. These annals introduce Gray’s problem with the higher classes’ feeling of supremacy.

Gray begins explaining this problem is stanza nine, as he contrasts the "annals of the poor" with "the boast of heraldry, the pomp of power." This contrast is significant because he speaks of their displays as ‘boast’ and ‘pomp,’ implying that they are all show, and in fact are not as grand as their displays. The rest of the stanza gives a greater emphasis of this idea as it continues "and all that wealth e’er gave, awaits alike th’ inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave." Here it becomes clear that Gray’s ultimate goal is to show that all people are equals in death. He also seems to suggest that wealth ultimately gets you nowhere, as it is only illusive. Just as the rich are happy with their laziness, the poor are happy with their work. Gray stresses his idea of equality in death as he asks the reader "Can storied urn or animated bust back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?" However, Gray again returns to his images of reading and writing in the fourth part of the elegy.

At this point in the poem this register is critical because it carries Gray’s views on how and why the upper classes feel so superior. Gray begins to hint at his reasons in the lines "But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll." Here, Gray relates an ‘ample page’ to Knowledge in its highest form. The capital ‘K’ personifies Knowledge, making it out to be some higher power that transcends time and space. Gray suggests through these lines that knowledge not only unites mankind, but it is the one factor that should determine relationships between different groups of people. Gray takes his metaphor further in the next few stanzas as he suggests that some of the ‘rude forefathers’ could have been Miltons or Cromwells had not they been forced into a life of servitude by people who had more money, and therefore, more power. As Gray begins to establish that the rich assert unfair power over the poor, he links their assertion to the unity of universal knowledge. The relationship becomes clear in lines 61-64, as Gray states "Th’ applause of listening senates to command, the threats of pain and ruin to despise, to scatter plenty o’er a smiling land, and read their history in a nation’s eyes." Here Gray portrays the kinds of power that the rich have and the poor lack, but he also suggests that the poor have every right to them as the rich do. However, the line "and read their history in a nation’s eyes" suggests that the poor generally cannot read, a fact which is confirmed in line 115 as the hoary-headed swain states "for thou canst read." This illiteracy is opposed by the upper classes’ superior education. They can read, and so they use that as a tool to maintain their control over those who cannot. Gray sympathizes more with the lower classes as he considers it unfair that a group of people should use knowledge, the one uniting factor within mankind, for their own personal gain at another groups loss.

The type of knowledge, that of communication, that Gray uses is also highly significant because communication is key to unity. Without the ability to communicate through the written word, the poor can easily be subjugated. This assertion of power is stressed through the next three stanzas as the speaker sings that the poor are "Forbade to wade through the slaughter to a throne, and shut the gates of mercy on mankind… Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride with incense kindled at the Muse’s flame." The capitalization of Luxury and Pride show how the powerful upper classes have tried to make them into something superior or virtuous, in essence, into something coveted that asserts their power over the poor. Likewise, the capitalization of Muse suggests that the rich have taken even inspiration itself for themselves. The rich have structured society so that the poor have virtually no chance of deciding what goes on in their environment at large.

There is a sort of optimism, though, in the lower classes’ situation. Although the rich have so much power, they are depicted as inferior to the poor, who "far from the madding crowds [the rich] ignoble strife… they [the poor] kept the noiseless tenor of their way." Although they are not known by the world, and although they have no impact on the world at large, there is a certain honor to their ways that the upper classes do not have. Even in their destitute position, a farmer’s "frail memorial still erected nigh… implores the passing tribute of a sigh." Gray takes the concept of the lower classes’ superior honor further as he rhymes "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." The first three lines of this stanza reveal how the poor still have honor and can indeed be inspired by a muse. Additionally, the ‘unlettered muse’ takes a double meaning here. In the first interpretation the muse is a stone cutter, who, although not a poet, serves a similar purpose: recording the honor and lives of countless people. The second interpretation is an opposition to the upper classes ‘Muse.’ Here muse is not capitalized, but is referred to in the third line of the stanza as a female, and therefore a classical muse; as Gray states "and many a holy text around she strews." Although this muse is not as well known as the Muse of the rich, her goal is the same: to inspire. This similarity between the two classes, as well as the last line of the stanza, reaffirms Gray’s idea that all men are equal in death.

The final image of the written word that Gray uses in this elegy is the epitaph of the speaker’s grave, and serves as the last piece of the puzzle, pulling all of the poem’s messages together. On the epitaph, which the swain cannot read, the speaker is immediately described as "a youth to fortune and to fame unknown." The fact that ‘fortune’ and ‘fame’ are not capitalized is important because they would have been by the rich, but to the poor, fortune and fame are not some great goal that all men should strive for. However, there is unnecessary capitalization in the epitaph, such as ‘Science,’ ‘Melancholy,’ and ‘Mis’ry.’ Science can be seen as the lower classes better understanding of the natural world because they experience it and work in it everyday, where as the famed poet who sings of nature only sees nature, and does not truly experience it. Melancholy and Mis’ry can then be seen as the positions that the poor have been born into. These terms also relate back to line 116, where the hoary-headed swain mentions the "stone beneath yon aged thorn." This image offers a contrast to the "ivy-mantled tower" and parallels Christ, who wore a crown of thorns on the crucifix. The poor are again considered superior in a more noble and religious light through this comparison, yet the reference to Christ also reminds the reader that all men are equal in death.

This idea of equality also closes the epitaph and the poem, as it is Gray’s ultimate moral in the poem. However, he instills a sort of unity that was not previously seen in the elegy. The identity of the "friend" in line 124 is not clear, but he is linked to the speaker in the final couplet as Gray closes "(There they alike in trembling hope repose) The bosom of his Father and his God." Not only are they equals in death, but they both enter heaven without material wealth, only a love for God and a mutual ignorance of His true splendor. For Gray, rich and poor were one and the same when they entered Heaven, where everyone has slates wiped clean. Once there, all men begin anew, and find true knowledge and companionship between each other.