Thomas Gray is a poet of great ability and great disappointment. His earlier poems, although of exceptional caliber, have failed to be acknowledged by the masses. Also, his later poems have been heavily criticized for vagueness, a blow responsible for causing his retirement. However, as unsuccessful as many of Gray’s poems are, they are brilliantly written. Expressions of self-evident truth, conveyed in a way that is mature, whimsical, and heartrending, characterize the majority of Gray’s poems. Of all Gray’s poems, though, there is one that stands out. “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” written as a response to the death of one of Gray’s closest friends, has received universal acclaim from people of all different social backgrounds and time periods.
“Elegy in a Country Churchyard” focuses on death and how everyone is equal and beautiful because of death. The flower that blooms for but a day and then withers is the more beautiful for it. One’s family members are never more cherished than when they lie on their deathbeds. The splendor of flowers and people, like everything in this universe, depends on their impending mortality; beauty cannot exist where death does not. Death brings equality to all human beings as well; when all are as nothing, all are equal. In, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Thomas Gray elegantly uses syntax, diction, and organization to express a tone of poignant beauty and equality in humanity.
Throughout his poem, Thomas Gray enhances his expression of the beauty and equality of life and death through his use of syntax. One of the aspects of syntax that he uses is repetition. In the fifth stanza, Gray discusses the dead and laments the fact that “the breezy call of incense-breathing Morn, \ the swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed, \ the cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn, \ no more shall rouse them from their lowly bed” (17-20). By using repetition of closely associated ideas, Gray places emphasis on the simple joys of waking up in the morning. It frames the beauty of life, illustrating that every action taken is beautiful and precious because humans are mortal. To get his point across, Gray also directly addresses his readers about the beauty and equality of the life of the lower class. He admonishes to “let not Ambition mock their useful toil, \ their homely joys, and destiny obscure...” (29-30). Many people believe that the life of the poor is simpler and of lesser quality than that of the rich. Gray, however, understands that there is as much, if not more, reward in honest work and a loving family than in perceived greatness. Additionally, Gray uses rhetorical questions to inspire lines of thought in his audience. He asks whether a “...storied urn or animated bust \ back to its mansion calls the fleeting breath? \ Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust, \ or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of death?” (41-44). His use of rhetorical questions helps the reader to realize that once one is dead, riches, honor, and charisma are insignificant. Death is unforgiving to all, careless of the circumstances of one’s life. Everyone has the same amount of meaning in life; in death, everyone amounts to the same silent dust.
Thomas Gray also uses diction to uphold, in his poem, a tone of melancholic beauty and equality in the lives of all people. In “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Gray refers to poor and simple country folk, considered base by high society, in the glory of their accomplishments. He exclaims: “how jocund do they drive their team afield! \ How bows the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!” (27-28). In the above two lines, Gray uses word choice to demonstrate the splendor of these unpretentious people. His use of the word “jocund” in the first line denotes the cheerful nature of these men as they work, while his use of the word “drive” connotes their majestic aspect as they impel their beasts of labor to work. Gray’s use of the word “bows” in the second line further connotes the regal nature of the country folk; it implies a yielding on the part of the woods to the nobility of the peasants who labor in them. These words convey the aura of regal tranquillity that that surrounds people and demonstrates the essential beauty of human life. Gray goes on to show the equality that death brings to all humans, no matter what their station in life. He tells the reader that “perhaps in this neglected spot is laid \ some heart once pregnant with celestial fire...” (45-46) In these two lines, Gray provides a contrast between the person in life and in death. In life, this person may be “pregnant with celestial fire;” living, he is full to bursting with greatness that rivals that of the stars. Now that he is dead, however, this man is a corpse, buried in a neglected spot. His grave, like that of the poor or the simple, is no longer visited or remembered by descendants or admirers. All humans fade from history and memory once they are no more; all return to earth, where one vein of soil is no greater or lesser than any other. Gray goes on to more elegantly express the hidden beauty that is possessed by most humans. He writes that “full many a gem of purest ray serene \ the dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: \ full many a flower is born to blush unseen, \ and waste its sweetness on the desert air” (53-56). In these two statements, Gray uses “gems of purest ray serene” and “flowers” as metaphors for people. Both of these forms express beauty; however, that beauty is not unique. Every gem is beautiful, as is every flower. He writes, however, that many of the gems are in caves at the bottom of the sea and many flowers bloom in the desert. With these words, he uses metaphors to imply that the greatness of simple people is often unseen but still present, nevertheless.
In addition to other literary modes, Thomas Gray uses clever organization to express the beauty and equality of humanity in his composition. In the first seven stanzas, Gray begins his poem by discussing the joys of life that the dead can no longer experience. He laments that for the dead “...no more the blazing hearth shall burn, \ or busy housewife ply her evening care: \ no children run to lisp their sire’s return, or climb his knees the envied kiss to share” (21-24). This entire first section is intended to express the beauty of life, the splendor of nature, the joys of a family, and the majesty invested in people by their very humanity. In the next section, composed of six stanzas, he stresses that humans are all equal and alike. He writes that “the boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, \ and all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, \ awaits alike th’ inevitable hour: \ the paths of glory lead but to the grave.” (33-36). Death is the great equalizer; all humans are subject to it. No one has been spared the grave’s grasp. Gray uses these stanzas to intimate that in death, all people are brothers and sisters, facing the same great unknown. In his final three stanzas, the epitaph, Gray writes of a gravestone that belongs to everyone and to no one. On the tombstone is the epitaph that fits for every human being who has entered into this world. It reads that “large is his bounty, and his soul sincere, \ Heav’n does a recompense as largely send: \ he gives to Mis’ry all he has, a tear, \ he gains from Heav’n (‘tis all he wishes) a friend” (121-124). All people, no matter their material lot, receive a resplendent gift in life. Everyone experiences the sorrows of misery and everyone experiences the joys of friendship.
Thomas Gray’s poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” is a magnificent composition that expresses the basic humanity and equality of all human beings. This poem is written ahead of its time, expressing truths and ideas that are not yet universal. Composed in 1751, this poem has been read and discussed through time periods of slavery and discrimination in the United States of America and elsewhere, times when humans have not been viewed as universally beautiful and equal. Only at a time when everyone is considered alike and valued, can this poem live up to its true potential.