"Education" as a Metaphor for Approaching Death in the Elegy

In his most famous work, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, the physical image of the grave and stone are recurrent throughout the work. In one part of the poem, the speaker says:

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect

Some frail memorial still erected nigh,

With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked,

Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. (77-80)

This passage demonstrates the most basic desire of the dead throughout the poem, to be remembered and outwardly recognized, in this case by a sigh. The underlying sentiment hinted at in this passage, and repeated throughout the poem, is the abhorrence of the dead at the prospect of being forgotten. This passage also illustrates the role of the gravestone in the remembrance of the dead. The construction of the tomb and written epitaph are literal examples of the way in which an understanding of literature serves as the means for fulfilling the demand of the dead and dying to be mourned. Thus, education serves as a metaphor for the way in which the rich acquire visibility to ensure that they are remembered in "a nation’s eyes," and for the way in which the poor, as a result of mindfulness, learn to mourn death. For the speaker of the poem, however, education is the cause of his mindfulness, and this reciprocal relationship allows the speaker to attain companionship.

Education, to the extent to which it can be used to mean "literacy" is used as the metaphor for the means with which the rich within the poem attain visibility, and are affectively immortalized in death through the "eyes of the nation." The first discrepancy between the literacy of the rich and the poor occurs when the reader advises:

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. (29-32)

These last two lines not only describes the "annals" or in this case, church records of the "rude forefathers," as disdainfully simple, but suggests that rich are well-versed enough to be capable of such contempt. The speaker goes on to further refer to the rich in his contrasting description of the poor. He says, "Knowledge to their eyes her ample page / Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll" (49-50). The most obvious conclusion from these lines is that "knowledge" discriminates against the poor in the way that the circumstances they live with do not allow for the same educational opportunities granted to the wealthy. It can be assumed, therefore, not only does Knowledge unroll her ample page to the rich, but they are able to read the page that is, "rich with the spoils of time" (50). Even though the poem is not explicit about what the "spoils of the time" entail, it is clear that these specifically distinguish the rich from the poor. The language that is used to describe the wealthy, powerful class of people makes it obvious that this distinction involves "visibility." The speaker refers to "The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power" (33) in context with the rich to point out, for instance, that heraldry, the devices that distinguished nobility, were made even more visible to the masses by "boast" and "pomp." Even the graves of the rich are described as places, "Where through the long-drawn isle and fretted vault / The pealing anthem swells the note of praise" (39-40). The "fretted" or decorated vault and the "note of praise" imply an audience, lending to the idea of the rich being "visible." The specific significance of this visibility to the rich isn’t revealed until a few lines later when the speaker contemplates what could have been the prospects of these rude forefathers had circumstances been different. By comparing them to famed British men, the speaker suggests that they could have been famous, "And read their history in a nation’s eyes" (64). Here the significance of literacy, and its connection to visibility is revealed. These visible individuals are immortalized in the eyes of the nation, a tribute that guarantees the parting soul that it will not be forgotten. Such is the luxury of those to whom "Knowledge" turned her ample page. Moreover, these souls are able to read their history, suggesting that it is indeed literacy that allows for the soul to be remembered. Thus, education, in terms of literacy, allows the rich to attain visibility, which in turn allows for their souls to be remembered.

Although the poor of the poem are uneducated, and affectively "invisible," they too abhor being forgotten. Thus, in the poem, the dying as well as the dead evoke mindfulness among their living, who become "educated" in the sense that they learn to mourn death in terms of spiritual edification, as well as in a literal sense. The speaker touches upon the refusal of the soul to be forgotten by saying:

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,

Some pious drops the closing eye requires;

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

Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires. (89-92)

In these lines, is it apparent not only that the rude forefathers want to be remembered, but that they require "parting drops," or tears. Thus, it is clear that the parting soul requires mindfulness in death. Yet the speaker clearly states that even once they are dead, their wonted fires live in his ashes (and presumably those of the other mindful poor). The speaker goes on to mention some of the other "mindful poor" when he says, "Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unlettered muse, / The place of fame and elegy supply: (81-82). The unlettered muse is the first of the mindful poor to be introduced. It is worth noting that the muse, who becomes mindful of the dead in his trade, is unlettered, or uneducated; yet this is presumably the same soul who writes the epitaph at the end of the poem in perfect meter. In the next line, the speaker says, "And many a holy text around she strews, / That teach the rustic moralist to die" (83-84). It could be assumed that the rustic moralist is also mindful of the dead in the way she is "learning to die," and thus mourning the dead by the inscriptions on the tombs. The "holy texts," however, could not the elegies of the unlettered muse, unless he is a "she." The only other feminine pronoun used is found earlier in the poem and reads, "But knowledge to their eyes her ample page…" (49). Therefore, it can be concluded that the same Knowledge that endowed the rich with the ample page of the spoils of the time teaches unlettered muse to write in perfect meter and the rustic moralist to die (or to appropriately mourn death) through the holy texts. Thus in the case of the rustic moralist, education is applied in the sense of moral or spiritual edification. For both the unlettered muse and the rustic moralist, mindfulness for death allows for their "education." Thus, it is clear that the mindful poor are educated to mourn death literally, and in terms of moral edification.

While mindfulness allowed for the "education" of the poor, it is the speaker’s education, in a literal sense, which allows him to be mindful of the poor. Moreover, it is this reciprocal relationship between the role of education and mindfulness that allows for the speaker’s recompense, to be mourned in his death. At the end of the poem, the speaker reads what is understood to be his own epitaph. It says, "Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth, / And Melancholy marked him for her own" (119-120). In the same way that "Science" or knowledge favored the rich, it favors the speaker, despite his status. The difference between the speaker and the rich in the poem, then, is the rich took advantage of "the spoils of time" while the speaker became a mindful child of melancholy. The epitaph goes on to read:

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)

This passage clearly indicates that the speaker is indeed mindful, and even mourned the death of others. Thus, the recompense for the speaker, a companion, illustrates the reciprocity of this relationship. As he mourned for the misery of others, so shall other mindful individuals mourn him in his own misery and death.

Therefore, even while it is used literally in the poem, "education" serves as a metaphor for the way in which the rich acquire visibility and remembrance, as well as the way in which the poor learn to mourn death. Likewise, the reciprocal relationship between education and mindfulness allows the speaker to obtain a friend. By presenting education as the means for embracing two distinct approaches to death, the speaker allows for a comparison between the rich and the poor. Given the choice, the speaker essentially chooses mindfulness. Thus, the use of education as a metaphor does not necessarily render it "good" or "evil," but as determined by circumstance, with the potential of very distinct ends.

Works Cited

Damrosch, David. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. New York: Longman, 1999.

Gray, Thomas. "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." Damrosch 2685-88.