Community, Mindfulness, Recompense and Sound

There are two communities in Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." There are two communities outside of the speaker, each with their own set of sounds. These communities are based on how mindful they are of what is around them. There is the community of "the poor" who are associated with the sounds of animals and the land around them. There is the community of "the Proud" with its "boast of heraldry, the pomp of power" (37, 33). The sounds are what make the speaker aware of what is going on around him. It is through these sounds that he searches for a connection to these communities. Because he is the only one mindful of these sounds he is the only one mindful of the passing of others. Sound expresses mindfulness and community. He is hopeful that at some point in the future someone will be aware of his passing that is expressed in the reading aloud of his own epitaph, creating a connection between himself and another. This person who reads aloud, who is aware, is the friend that serves as recompense for the time the speaker spends alone contemplating the death of others. It is the legacy he leaves and the community he finds for himself because they share the reading aloud. The speaker is set apart from these communities, first by his awareness and then by the recompense he is granted in the end. The speaker is repaid for his mindfulness; he is given recompense at the end. But, until then, he is left alone, set apart from all the communities, the only one to hear and recognize the different sounds of the different communities. In a way, it is this mindfulness that serves as recompense to the other communities, especially the agrarian community that he is watching.

The setting of the poem begins in the first line with the toll of bells, calling him to his awareness. This "curfew [that] tolls the knell of parting day" is what sets off the speaker in his thoughts in the country churchyard. Church bells, tolling for the hours also toll for the death of somebody. It tolls for the passing of time, and it tolls for the passing of people. Here it is tolling for the "parting day." It serves as a reminder to the speaker, making him aware, of what he continues on to write in his poem: the inevitability of death and passing. It reminds him of his own mortality and he begins to question if there is anyone left to remember him when he is gone. However, these sounds do not seem to remind anyone else of this, just the speaker is aware, as "the plowman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me" (3, 4). The speaker is now isolated and alone with this darkness and the thoughts awakened in him by these bells as he attempts to make a connection to these people and find some part of a community.

The agrarian class community is connected to nature, which suggests that they are aware of what is around them but just do not remember those that have gone. The "cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn" in the fifth stanza is a common symbol of awakening suggesting that they are awakened to their own state by the sounds connected to their community. The rooster, a "cock", would wake a farmer at sunrise for his daily chores, once again connecting to the agrarian way of life. But it says these sounds "No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed" (20). Their lowly bed is literally their grave, but also refers to their lowly, or common, stature. Like the cock there are certain sounds dealing with nature that are associated with this agrarian community that he is observing. The "lowing herd wind[ing] o’er the lea" is associated with the "plowman" and also provides more of a direct correlation to nature. In the following stanzas we grow closer to this connection with nature as the speaker describes the "beetle wheels his droning flight" and "the moping owl does to the moon complain." It is not that these people in this community are unmindful of these sounds, it is just that they are unremembered by anyone besides the speaker. It is through these sounds that the speaker looking for some small bit of connection. He wants to find something in them that reminds him of himself.

The "Ambitious" are not aware of their own inevitable death, let alone the death of others. They in fact try to hide it with their sounds. The speaker is hoping to call for remembrance to be given to these unnamed "rustic forefathers" (16) whose "lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone / Their growing virtues" (65) and who are connected to each other. He is attempting to remind those "Ambitious" of their own death, the unifying nature of all mankind. All "Await alike the inevitable hour" (35). Despite the loudness of the sounds associated for these, the "Ambitious", they cannot escape their own mortality. But as the speaker says "Can storied urn or animated bust / back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?" (41, 42) These "storied urns" are compared to the "neglected spots" of the common. The conflict comes because the "Ambitious" do not recognize the similarity of their circumstance to "their useful toil. / Their homely joys, and destiny obscure" (29, 30), "their" being the "rude forefathers." Both of them "Await alike th’inevitable hour" of death. There is the contrast of sounds between the two communities. The "Ambitious" are loud and proud and have "The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power" (33). The other is almost not allowed to have sounds. They have "the noiseless tenor of their way" (76), "Th’applause of listening senates to command…[which] their lot forbade" (61, 65). Nothing, despite how loud, or how soft, can call back the soul once gone except remembrance.

People in general need to depend on others, not a "frail memorial" (78) for remembrance, though they erect it "from insult to protect" (77). The acknowledgment of the lower class’s death is instead "the passing tribute of a sigh" keeping their obscure, rural way compared to the pomp and display of the "Ambitious." They have a "noiseless tenor of their way" which is what keeps them in obscurity and makes them seem that they are more deserving of remembrance. They have no loud "heraldry" to announce their power or demand to be remembered. They are dependant on others of their company, their community to remember them. It is on "some fond breast the parting soul relies, / Some pious drops the closing eye requires" (89, 90). The "pious drops of tears" are a common symbol of melancholic sentiment. It shows a small connection to the author who is melancholic. It is in this way the speaker thinks they should be remembered, and the way he wants to be remembered.

The speaker believes that the recompense for a melancholic life, or even life in general, isn’t heraldry or even "uncouth rhymes" (79), but a remembrance by a kindred spirit. The mindfulness of others comes from "the voice of nature [that] cries" (92). For some they believe this "voice of nature" would be their "boast of heraldry, the pomp of power" (33). For others there are just "the uncouth rhymes" and the "passing tribute of a sigh" (80). All the speaker wants is a friend, " ’twas all he wished" (124). This friend is embodied in "some kindred spirit [that] shall inquire" (96). But it takes the verbally "inquiring" or asking, and then the reading aloud of the speaker’s own epitaph, once again finding connection through sound.

The speaker is most closely related to the community of this agrarian class. What sets him apart is his awareness and his recompense for his awareness. He realizes that the "pious drops" that serve as remembrance of one gone is the reward, the recompense of life. In his epitaph, read by his "kindred spirit" the reader is told that his recompense is "all he wished, a friend." It is this "recompense" that he is given that sets him apart from the two different communities. There are only two characters that speak in the poem aside from the speaker, the "hoary-headed swain" and the "kindred spirit." The "hoary-headed swain" and "the kindred spirit" make up a different community all together because of their connection to sound, speaking, and their connection with the speaker.

Mindfulness and community are expressed through sound. Awareness creates community. Connection to a person and the forming of a community is recompense for life. The speaker eventually finds his own community through the "kindred spirit" who reads aloud his epitaph. His poem, his elegy, does the same thing for the "rustic forefathers" that his kindred spirit does for him. He creates the remembrance by this poem that he writes, through his own sentiment. He alone recognizes the connecting power between all three communities - those of the Proud, the rustic and himself - which is the need to be remembered after death. This is the recompense of life.