The Conflict Between Argument and Images in Thomas Gray’s

"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

Asking, "Can Honor’s voice provoke the silent dust, or Flattery soothe the dull old ear of Death?" (43-44), Thomas Gray in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" minimizes the importance and effectual influence of human recognition. Additionally, Gray defends the poor’s lack of worldly accomplishments arguing mere circumstance halts their successes (see lines 45-75). Clearly, Gray’s poem attempts to right a wrong he witnesses in society. Unfortunately, Gray’s choice of images and metaphors further the problem he is trying to solve by reinforcing the already over-emphasized importance of human opinion. Close analysis of the "Elegy’s" images and metaphors reveals the subtle marketing of public recognition as the requirement for, motivation behind, and equivalent to a successful life, as well as the cure-all for life’s injustices.

In the "Elegy," Gray attempts to down play the importance human achievements, but in so doing, inadvertently defines human recognition the motivation for accomplishment:

Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault,

If Memory over their tomb no trophies raise

Where through the long-drawn isle and fretted vault

The pealing anthem swells the note of praise. (37-40)

Beginning with the phrase, "Nor you," Gray automatically sets himself apart from the group he is speaking to leaving them to be better or worse than he is in the area of which he is about to discuss. Immediately following this separation, Gray groups the people he is talking to into a single category under a title that inherently degrades their activities to the level of being wasteful and self-aggrandizing: Proud. He attacks the practice of building trophies, large processions, and singing anthems, and while so doing says something profound about human endeavors. Each of the ideas mentioned, namely trophies, funerals, and anthems, come at the very end of human life. In a sense, they are a way of fulfilling the deceased’s final wishes. Nearly without exception, these exhibitions display the dead’s previously expressed desire to be remembered after they have passed on. This human desire, Gray reveals, is not restricted to the commemoration of the dead. Gray ridicules the Proud for "The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power." (33-34). Boasting and expressions of power are done for the sole purpose off getting others to pay attention. Furthermore, when boasting combines with heraldry, and power parades, they are not likely to be small ordeals. In essence, the motivation, like that of the trophies and funerals, is to get as many people to notice and remember you as possible. Such baseness of motivation is not confined to those we call proud. The poor are likewise guilty of striving to collect public recognition, the difference only being they lack the resources to do it on a larger scale. The poor write "annals" (32), and build "frail memorials" (77). The means are different, but the motivation is the same. In Gray’s attempt to defend these poor, he reveals they are guilty, as the rich, of striving to be known and remembered.

Beyond emphasizing the human desire to be remembered, Gray’s "Elegy" also suggests public recognition defines our successes by focusing on tiles and praise above actual accomplishments. In describing would-be accomplishers, Gray says:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene

The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear. (53-54)

"Unfathomed" relates directly to human comprehension, so, translating the metaphor a bit, the only thing holding back the potential of the poor is lack of human recognition. But we cannot say that discovering the cave is all that is needed. The question of weather the rocks in the cave are actually "gems" needs to be answered as well, and that is based solely on human perception. What makes a gem a gem, and a rock a rock, is essentially how much someone is willing to pay for it. How much they are willing to pay for it depends on how much they think others will like it. Jewelry is not bought to be hidden, but to be worn and flaunted. Coal is a far more useful to human existence than a ruby, but it will never be called a gem because human perception says that it is ugly. Gray refers to the successes of Hampden (57) and Milton (59), but the same standard can be applied. Hampden’s defiance of Charles I made him successful because collective opinion viewed his defiance more valuable than Charles’s reign. In the metaphorical sense, we have no way, beyond what others tell us, of knowing who was the gem and who was the rock. Quite possibly they could both be rocks or both be gems, but collective perception dictates we choose one over the other. There could have been a thousand Miltons, but, like a sweeping tide, society washes away recognition of the masses to leave one standing above all. Lamenting the poor could have been Hampdens or a Miltons is wishing upon them a title bestowed on them by the masses. Gray mourned the gems in the unfathomed cave would never experience, "The applause of listening senates to command," (61), and others would never "read their history in a nation’s eyes." (64). Each of these envied glories, like the title of "gem" and "Milton", is contingent on how others perceive them. Even on a more basic level, Gray’s examples of success necessitate human recognition. He describes leaving the joy of family life as follows:

No Children run to lisp their sire’s return,

Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share. (23-24)

This typical scene of a father returning home from a day in the fields parallels Gray’s other examples. The father seems to have raised a successful family, but that success, like the previous examples, is based on his children’s view of him. Calling the father "sire" plays the same role as calling a rock a "gem." Similar to the senate’s applause, the envy surrounding the father’s kiss displays that people outside the father find him successful. Repeatedly, Gray’s examples of success define success through the receipt of titles and praise, and therefore further the problem he is trying to solve.

In this high-congested race for public praise and recognition, Gray exaggerates their desirability by arguing that recognition breeds recognition, and lack of it prevents more from coming. To reason why some were left without honor and reputation, Gray says, "Their lot forbade." (65). The word "lot" encompasses a diversity of aspects. Obviously wealth, occupation, and education are assumed in one’s "lot." But assuming that Gray’s previous argument is true, that in these undiscovered places there exists many "gems," something else must be included in this lot as to prevent their worth from being recognized. Gray’s other examples describe the forbidding force with much more aggression, and the potential as much more real.

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed, (46-47)

Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul. (51-52)

The idea of being pregnant reaches far beyond mere potential. It suggests the "celestial fire" had already begun to burn. The term "might" may also be looked at under the same light. The cause of their failures, it is said, is simple penury, but "repression" and "freezing" are words used to control enormous movement such as oceans and social upheavals. The people born into these forbidding lots are not only without opportunity, but are pinned down by an even greater force: reputation. Gray’s images suggest that even if they had the motivation to climb out of their class, their reputations would exceed them, and others would actively fight to prevent their recognition. This interprets "the boast of heraldry, and the pomp of power" to be worth their weight in gold because without them, Gray believes, all efforts are doomed to be fruitless.

In a system that perverts itself around the idolization of public recognition, Gray furthers the emphasis on public opinion by treating the memory as an act of recompense to life’s injustices. Defending the poor, Gray says to the rich:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,

Their homely joys, and destiny obscure. (29-30)

A "mock" is words. It causes no physical damage. It changes not history. It can only affect people’s opinions. Gray pleads that the mock will be withheld to preserve the joys of the past and the destiny of a life already lived. A touching request that gives all the more excessive credit to public recognition. He mourns the poor have only "short annals," (32) to be remembered by as if a longer description of the person would replace a life of pain and missed opportunity. "Yet even these bones from insult to protect" (77) have a memorial over their grave. Again, the abstract "insult" is feared to change the worth of a life already lived. The sentiment is sweet, but worsens the problem by giving public opinion another power, the power of recompense, it does not deserve.

In the beginning, Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" mocked the pursuit of praising and honoring lips, yet throughout the poem subtly sells public recognition the most valuable asset in life to gain. His images and metaphors describe public opinion as our motivation for and definition of success. He argues the worth of a life already lived fluctuates around public opinion. Sadly, doing so widens the chasm he is trying to cross. Better it might have been to ignore the influence of public opinion in our lives, and seek to find what lies beneath what the masses say. Perhaps it is not so easily done. Perhaps the problem is so pervasive, and permeates every corner of our understanding, that running away from it, as Gray tried, leads us only directly into its jaws.


Works Cited:

Damrosch, David. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Addison-Wesley, 1999.