Re-Writing the Use of Language:

Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard

Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard, challenges the uses of reading and writing. It holds a place in literary tradition as a work that transforms literary value from something that can be found in public discord to something that focuses on the private and the intellectual, in sensibility. To demonstrate this goal of a transition in literary value, Gray sets up a dynamic of two groups: the educated aristocracy and the illiterate peasantry. The educated and wealthy use reading and writing as tools to gain wealth and fame. These desires are not only selfish and impure but they are useless when the cold hand of death leads one away. Their lives of "heraldry" and "pomp"(33) bring no more comfort in death than do the silent, text-less lives of the poor. The author is obviously literate himself, but he doesn’t fit in their group because he uses literature to be "mindful of the unhonored dead"(93), not to better himself. Because of this he finds "recompense"(122) in death, "a friend"(124) gained from heaven, a means of community even in death. This poem proclaims the value of sentimental literature in its claim that when all paths "lead but to the grave"(36), only an awareness of the less fortunate can employ literature as a means of building community and so create the only comfort one could want in the face of death, a friend.

Throughout the poem the ability to read and write is constantly alluded to in order to establish two distinct communities, those of the literate and the illiterate. The readers attention is drawn most forcibly to the acts of writing and reading near the end when the "hoary-headed swain"(97) asks the "kindred spirit"(96) to "read (for thou can’st read) the lay"(115) on the gravestone. Here the "hoary-headed swain" (97) is singled out as being illiterate. Expanding this distinction of literacy to the rest of the characters in the poem, one sees that he fits in a group which includes the "rude forefathers"(16) and their families. These are the ones whose gravestones are bedecked with "uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture"(79), and instead of "fame and elegy"(82) they have nothing but their name and year "spelt by th’ unlettered muse"(81). The "uncouth rhymes" spelled out by an "unlettered muse" all refer to the peasantry’s lack of education.

With education established as the dominant distinction between the two groups, the silence, the "noiseless" way of the peasants referred to in line seventy-six is most accurately understood as a textlessness. It is not an actual silence, but one void of public discord. Early in the poem, the lives of the "rude forefathers" are described, and they are not ones of silence: there is the "cock’s shrill clarion," "the echoing horn," and of the men it is said, "How jocund did they drive their team afield!"(27). "Jocund," is "gay, sprightly, cheering" (OED), definitely not noiseless. In the line, "They kept the noiseless tenor of their way"(75), "tenor" refers to a constant meaning, but it also applies to texts. "Tenor" is defined as a "meaning which holds on or continues through something written or spoken; the general sense or meaning of a document, speech" (OED). With this in mind, a "noiseless tenor" as a way of life is one devoid of "document[s]" and "speech[es]." They left nothing to proclaim themselves and their passing to the rest of the world. The peasants, laid for eternity under the lines of an "unlettered muse," in this "neglected spot,"(45) leave nothing but "short and simple annals"(32); hence they pass on, "unhonored"(93).

The literate aristocracy, in contrast, have the power of words at their disposal, but their use of language is described as vain and selfish, definitely condemnable when we see, by the end of the poem, that reading and writing can be employed for the good of the community. Lines 33-34 describe the aristocracy’s arrogant use of language: "The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,/ and all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave…" The term, "heraldry," refers to the display of a coat of arms of the aristocracy, and it also means the "action of announcing and ushering in with pomp and ceremony" (OED). Such a grand show, regardless of the "beauty" of it or the "wealth" that it is symbolic of, leads "but to the grave"(36). Furthermore, their heraldry is described as "boast[ful]" (Boast: "Proud or vain-glorious speech; the expression of ostentation"[OED]), emphasizing that it is merely an arrogant exhibition. Their uses of reading and writing are an "ostentatious display"(definition of "Pomp" [OED]), creating nothing but a hollow glory; they are mere "boast[s]" made in the hope of self glorification. They claim to live lives of "Ambition"(29) and "Granduer"(31), but this is merely a show, a show that employs language only to further the self.

The aristocracy’s uses of writing and reading are not only an arrogant display, but they are also useless in the face of death; together these characteristic make it more than apparent that, as the poem as a whole declares, the use of language needs to be rethought. The lives of the educated gentry are as "paths of glory"(36), but this gets them nowhere in the end: "Can storied urn or animated bust/ Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?/ Can Honor’s voice provoke the silent dust,/ Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?"(43-44). These lines are directed at "ye Proud"(37) who would impute fault to the poor whose lives and graves have no such grandeur or ornamentation. In life, the aristocracy flatter and bestow honor on themselves, but in death, honor and flattery have no power, neither can "sooth the dull cold ear of Death."

In a description of how the peasants’ lot in life has prevented them from committing crimes, Gray pin-points poetry used to gain wealth and fame as one of the worst crimes, one that, as the previous paragraphs show, the aristocracy are undoubtedly guilty of. Gray describes how the peasantry, because of their poverty and lack of education, have lost the chance of attempting glory, but he also says that circumstance has constrained their virtues as well as possible misdeeds(66). Dominant among the mentioned crimes is that of "heap[ing] the shrine of Luxury and Pride/ with incense kindled at the Muse’s flame"(71-72). The Muse is the inspirer of poetry. Seeing how the peasantry are unable to write (it is an "unlettered muse"(81) who carves their gravestones) these lines are in reference to the gentry who do use their literacy to earn themselves "Luxury" and to swell their "Pride." They sacrifice, as at a shrine, their talents of poetry, the inspirations given by the muse, to the most ignoble of gods, luxury and pride. In six lines (67-72) Gray describes the crimes of humanity, and next to a description of "slaughter"(67) and falsehood(69), he uses two lines to judge those who use the gifts of the muse for greedy and conceited ends –obviously the use of language is central in this poem and is in need of revision.

The poet himself, in his use of It is writing employed in the wrong ways that is being reprimanded, not writing itself. Comfort in death is not found in a "storied urn or animated bust"(41), it is in companionship: "On some fond breast the parting soul relies,/ Some pious drops the closing eye requires"(89-90). The value of writing then, is in its ability to build community, for it is only a "fond breast" or a kind tear that can ease the cold chill of death.

The author of the poem and the "kindred spirit"(96), who, at the end, inquires of his fate, are the two characters of the poem who don’t fit strictly in either the literate or illiterate categories, and in their role within the poem, as fitting in neither of the established categories, we find the answer to what the use of writing and reading is meant to be. Line 93 is directed to the author of the poem and summarizes how language should be utilized: "For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonored dead/ Dost in these lines their artless tale relate…"(93-34). Language employed in order to be "mindful of th’ unhonored dead" is the ultimate use of language. This mindfulness refers to something of a shared consciousness. It represents a sympathy and understanding for those who are forced to travel paths of lesser grandeur and comfort, and also an awareness that the "paths of glory"(36) are not as ideal as they may appear, nor do they require a person of superior make-up.

In being "mindful of th’ unhonored dead" the poet evidences an awareness that all of humanity is capable of achieving glory, and he chooses, praiseworthily, to honor those whom no one else will. The poet realizes that the boasts of the wealthy and social champions are pretentions, for poor and rich alike, if given the opportunity, may have obtained the fame of such as "Hampden"(57), "Milton"(59), or "Cromwell"(60): Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid/ Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;/ Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed,/ Or waked the ecstasy to living lyre." Such hearts and hands would have attained great things, but their place in life, one of poverty and constant toil, left them without time for learning. In lines 53-56 they are compared to treasures unfound: to gems unseen in the dark of ocean caves and to flowers whose beauty and scent is wasted on desert air. Because of their poverty and lack of education they live a "noiseless"(76) life and die to be forgotten, but for the remembrance of the poet.

Through this mindfulness that sees the value in the disenfranchised, the poet achieves something that the heraldry and boasts of others failed to achieve, a community that brings comfort even in death. In the epitaph it is said of the poet: "He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear, /He gained from Heav’n (twas all he wished) a friend"(123-4). Tears, "some pious drops"(90), are all that a parting soul desires, and this is what the poet gave. In payment he gained a friend from heaven, "twas all he wished." It was his one wish, for when death comes "the boast of heraldry" and "the pomp of power"(33) are equally useless and all one desires is a "fond breast"(89) and an understanding tear.

In payment for his "soul sincere"(121) and the gift of a tear, the poet receives a "recompense"(122) from heaven, and this recompense can be understood as a community built through a like-mindedness. This recompense is, specifically, as mentioned in line 124, a friend gained from heaven. This friend can be understood to be found in the "kindred spirit" who inquires of his fate (96), the "bosom of his Father and his God"(128), or in the kind remembrance of the "hoary-headed swain"(97). Regardless, it is clear that this friend represents the community of people who are, like the poet (as described by the "hoary-headed swain"(97) in lines 101-108), led by "lonely Contemplation"(95) to a mindfulness of the "unhonored dead." This new community is the "recompense" earned in payment for the loss of fame and achieved ambitions that a more public and selfish approach to writing and reading could have brought. And it is a recompense much purer and longer-lasting than the honor and wealth that is earned through language employed selfishly.

In the poem, excluding the poet and the kindred spirit, those who can read and write use their skills only to "heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride"(71). The mindfulness displayed by the poet shows that language can be used to far worthier ends. It can create a shared consciousness that heightens the worth of writing and reading from that of mere boasts and vain ambition to something that creates a shared intellectual community and honors those whom society neglects. Gray is challenging the place of literature in society as a social discourse, where it is corrupted by desires of wealth and fame. He shows that it can better serve as a something more private and intellectual, something that cultivates sensibility and creates a like-minded community.


Works Cited

Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2000. Oxford University Press.

Gray, Thomas. "Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard." The Longman Anthology of British Literature Vol.1C. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Inc., 1999: 2685-2688.