Thomas Gray's famous Elegy, written in 1750, contains elliptical echoes of Spenser and Milton — and much else in the long and learned tradition of pastoral elegy. While Gray avoids obvious verbal imitation, there is no mistaking the Spenserian tone of sober melancholy. The Elegy became the single most popular eighteenth-century poem, endlessly reprinted and eventually memorized by millions of schoolchildren. There were over a hundred and fifty imitations and parodies published prior to 1830, and hundreds more poems in which Gray's imagery is variously incorporated into odes, sonnets, narratives, and descriptive poems.
The general impact of Gray's Elegy may be seen in the substitution of georgic realism in place of pastoral allegory in the later elegiac tradition, and in the establishment of the "elegiac" quatrain is its characteristic measure. Gray's example was such that in the later eighteenth century quatrains began replace couplets or stanzas in many other forms as well. Gray, rather than Spenser became the immediate model for much elegiac and descriptive poetry treating the theme of mutability, much as Milton became the immediate model for the allegorical ode. The manner and themes of Gray's poem often appear in later romantic Spenserian poems in combination with those of Goldsmith's The Deserted Village and Beattie's The Minstrel.
The Elegy is generally thought to have been inspired by Thomas Parnell's Night-Piece on Death: "Those Graves, with bending Osier bound, | That nameless heave the crumbled Ground, | Quick to the glancing Thought disclose | Where Toil and Poverty repose" Poems (1722) 153.
Thomas Gray to Thomas Wharton: "the stanzas which I now inclose to you have had the misfortune, by Mr. Walpole's fault, to be made still more public [than A Long Story], for which they certainly were never meant; but it is too late to complain. They have been so applauded, it is quite a shame to repeat it: I mean not to be modest; but it is a shame for those who have said such superlative things about them, that I cannot repeat them. I should have been glad that you and two or three more people had liked them, which would have satisfied my ambition on this head amply" 17 December 1750; Poems of Mr. Gray, ed. Mason (1775) 221.
London Advertiser: "The subject of this excellent Performance, is an Evening's Meditation in the Church-Yard of an obscure Village. The Author introduces himself walking over the Graves of the deceased humble Villagers, in a melancholy and contemplative Humour: He cloaths in Words eloquently appropriated and expressive, a Series of Thoughts naturally arising from the Scene, and succeeding to one another: From the Recollection of what the peaceful Inhabitants of the Earth under his Feet once were, and what they might have been, had Opportunities offered, he proceeds to a just Examination, and a consequent Contempt of that Pomp and Splendor which distinguishes the Great: He falls into a Reverie in the Conclusion, in which he gives what he imagines will be the Account of himself, when dead, from the Mouth of some humble Cottager; and concludes with an Epitaph on the Occasion, truly of a Spirit with the rest of the Poem. It is not too much to say, that this Piece comes nearer the Manner of Milton than any thing that has been published since the Time of that Poet: Whoever will look into the Lycidas of that Author, will not fail to see a striking Likeness, and to own that this Elegy does not suffer in the Comparison. The Poem is full of Imagination, and as full of Sentiment; the Imagery is striking, and just; the Descriptive Part elegantly simple; the Expression concise yet clear, nervous yet smooth, and majestic without Pomp" (5 March 1751).
Monthly Review: "The excellence of this little piece amply compensates for its want of quantity" 4 (February 1751) 309.
William Shenstone to Lady Luxborough: "I have seen Whitehead's Ode to the Bristol-Spring; which I dont much like; and the Verses in the country Church-yard which (as the Hagley-gardener said of my Grove) I like too well. Pray whose are they?" 24 May 1751; Letters, ed. Williams (1939) 309.
Dr. John Gregory to James Beattie: "His Churchyard Elegy ... he told me, with a good deal of acrimony, owed its popularity entirely to the subject, and that the public would have received it as well if it had been written in prose" 1 January 1766; in Forbes, Life of Beattie (1806) 1:83.
Oliver Goldsmith: "This is a very fine poem, but overloaded with epithet. The heroic measure with alternate rhime is very properly adapted to the solemnity of the subject, as is the slowest movement that our language admits of. The latter part of the poem is pathetic and interesting" Beauties of English Poesy (1767) 1:53.
Percival Stockdale: "It will be read, and celebrated as long as our language is understood, and as long as mankind retain the sentiments of humanity" An Inquiry into the Nature, and Genuine Laws of Poetry (1778) 99-100.
Samuel Johnson: "In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The 'Church-yard' abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning 'Yet even these bones' are to me original; I have never seen the notions of any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray always written thus it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him" "Life of Gray" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 3:441-42.
Isaac D'Israeli: "those lines [in Shenstone's The School-Mistress] which give so original a view of genius in its infancy, 'A little bench of heedless bishops here, | And there a chancellor in embryo,' &c., were printed in 1742; and I cannot but think that the far-famed stanzas in Gray's Elegy, where he discovers men of genius in peasants, as SHENSTONE has in children, was suggested by this original conception: 'Some mute, inglorious Milton here may rest, | Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood,' is, to me, a congenial thought, with an echoed turn of expression of the lines from the Schoolmistress" "Shenstone's Schoolmistress" in Curiosities of Literature (1791; 1866) 362.
Robert Anderson: "The imitations it has produced are innumerable" British Poets (1795) 10:197.
Henry John Todd: "Gray, in his celebrated Elegy, has culled an expression from this Eclogue [Februarie 201: "But to the roote bent his sturdie stroake"]. Compare the seventh stanza of the Elegy: 'How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy-stroke!'" Works of Spenser (1805) 1:43n.
Percival Stockdale: "None of Gray's Poems are so much read; are read with so much attention, and recollection as this elegy. This constant, and almost unavoidable preference, is not to be ascribed to its absolute, and unequalled, excellence; nor indeed, altogether, to the confined, and undistinguishing taste of the reader. In the higher powers, and atchievements of poetry, it is certainly inferiour to the Bard, and to the Progress of Poesy. But it comes peculiarly home to the most interesting affections; to the tender feelings; to the analogous, and endeared sentiments of mankind. People of all stations, professions, and attainments, are more deeply impressed; and more frequently, and with a more heart-felt pleasure, converse with those objects which they love, than with those which they admire" Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets (1807) 2:617.
Universal Magazine: "'Where heaves the turf in many a mouldring heap,' is from Parnell's Night-piece: 'Those graves with bending osier bound, | That nameless heave the crumbled ground'.... 'How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke,' is from Spenser's Februarie: 'But to the wood bent his sturdie strooke'" NS 14 (September 1810) 209.
John Keble: "With regard to the indirect, and, perhaps, more effective, species of sacred poetry, we fear it must be acknowledged, to the shame of the last century, that there is hardly a single specimen of it (excepting, perhaps, Gray's Elegy, and possibly some of the most perfect of Collins's poems), which has obtained any celebrity" Quarterly Review 32 (June 1825) 231.
Robert Southey: "Gray's elegy owes much of its popularity to its strain of verse; the strain of thought alone, natural and touching as it is, would never have impressed it upon the hearts of thousands and tens of thousands, unless the diction and metre in which it was embodied had been perfectly in unison with it. Beattie ascribed its general reception to both causes. 'It is a poem,' he says, 'which is universally understood and admired; not only for its poetical beauties, but also, and perhaps chiefly, for its expressing sentiments in which every man thinks himself interested, and which at certain times are familiar to all men.' Neither cause would have sufficed for producing so general and extensive and permanent effect, unless the poem had been, in the full impact of the word, harmonious" Life and Works of Cowper (1835-37) 2:173-74.
Walter Savage Landor: "Gray's Elegy will be read as long as any work of Shakespeare, despite its moping owl and the tin-kettle of an epitaph tied to its tail. It is the first poem that ever touched my heart, and it still strikes it now just in the same place. Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, the four giants who lived before our last Deluge of poetry, have left the ivy growing on the churchyard wall" 1843; in Forster, Landor, a Biography (1869) 570.
John Mitford: "Notwithstanding the general brightness of the poet's reputation, and the consent of the 'chosen few' in the admission of his superior genius, the Elegy was in truth the only one of his poems that was universally popular. The subject of it was attractive; the imagery recommended by its elegance; and the sentiments and reflections were not too deep for the common apprehension.... This was not the case with the Odes. The principals on which they were formed, and the ornaments they required, were less adapted to the public taste and knowledge. They were of too high a flight" Correspondence of Thomas Gray and William Mason, ed. John Mitford (1853) x-xi.
Leigh Hunt: "The epitaph is on the author; and never did a man speak of himself with a truth more beautifully combining dignity with humility, a sense of all that he felt worthy and all that he felt weak. We suspect, that the 'cross'd in love' of the previous lines might very well apply to Gray. He had secret griefs of some kind, perhaps of disease, perhaps of sympathy with a good mother, and distress at having a bad father (for such, alas! was the case); but whatever they were, we may be sure that they were those of a good and kind man. The poem before us is as sweet as if written by Coleridge, and as pious and universal as if religion had uttered it, undisturbed by polemics. It is a quintessence of humanity" Selections from English Authors, in Works (1854) 3:222.
Edmund Gosse: "Three of Gray's odes, printed in Dodsley's Miscellany in 1748, introduced his work, though still not his name, to the public, and in the winter of 1749 he continued, and in the summer of 1750 finished, his Elegy in a Country Churchyard. This was anonymously published in the spring of 1751. In 1753 Six Poems by Mr. T. Gray, including, besides those already mentioned, A Long Story, written in 1751, were published as a luxurious folio, with full-page illustrations by Richard Bentley, son of the Master of Trinity. Many of these poems were identified with the rustic village of Stoke Pogis, in Bucks, where several of Gray's female relations resided, and where his mother died and was buried in 1753" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 237.
George Birkbeck Hill: "Cradock records (Memoirs, i. 230) that Goldsmith said to him: — 'You are so attached to Hurd, Gray, and Mason, that you think nothing good can proceed but out of that formal school; — now, I'll mend Gray's Elegy by leaving out an idle word in every line. 'The curfew tolls the knell of day, | The lowing herd winds o'er the lea, | The ploughman homeward plods his way, | And—'' 'Enough, enough, I have no ear for more'" Note in Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791); ed. G. B. Hill (1891) 1:467n.
Ralph Straus: "Walpole lost no time in carrying out his friend's request, and his copy was dispatched at once to the Tully's Head. The Elegy was sent immediately to press, but Owen, the proprietor of the Magazine of Magazines, seems to have learned that Dodsley proposed to forestall him, and likewise hurried his own number through the press. His magazine usually appeared during the last few days of the month, but on this occasion it came out on the 16th, a fact of which none of Gray's biographers seem to be aware. It was not soon enough, however, for Dodsley had only the day before issued the poem as a quarto pamphlet. There had been a race, and Dodsley won by a bare twenty-four hours, and so it was on Feb. 15th, not the 16th, as has often been stated, that the Elegy acutally made its first public appearance" Robert Dodsley (1910) 156-57.
Eleanor M. Sickels: "It goes without saying that the greatest eighteenth-century expression of this theme [mutability] is the Elegy in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray. As has already been said, this famous poem gathers into itself most of the elements of the earlier melancholy tradition, and adds to them the flavor of Gray's own sensibility and gentle humanity.... This is not to imply that Gray must take sole responsibility for all the churchyard yews, moping owls, and philosophical ruins of the latter half of the century; enough has already been said to guard against such an exaggeration. But it remains true that if it had not been for the famous Elegy, late-eighteenth-century meditations on time, death, and human glory would indubitably have been different in technique and fewer in number" Gloomy Egoist (1932) 92.
For lists of imitations, see Northrup's Bibliography of Gray (1917), the supplement by Starr (1952) and W. P. Jones, "Imitations of Gray's Elegy, 1751-1800" Bulletin of Bibliography 23 (1963) 230-32. A number of the imitators were autodidacts; for an example of a "mute, inglorious Milton" imitating Gray see An Imitation of Gray's Elegy. Written by a Sailor (1806). Among the imitations is Robert Burns's epitaph on Robert Fergusson.
On antecedents, see Amy Louise Reed, The Background of Gray's Elegy (1924); on the reception, see Eleanor Maria Sickels, Gloomy Egoists (1932).
The popular parody by John Duncombe, Evening Contemplations in a College, is of some interest; it was frequently reprinted. A Latin translation appears in the Anti-Jacobin Review 20 (May 1805) 443-46, and another in The Albion [New York] 1 (1823) 247. Christopher Anstey and William Hayward Roberts translated the Elegy into Latin (1762) with some supervision by Gray himself. A German translation appears in The Kaleidoscope [Liverpool] NS 3 (20 May 1823) 372-73, and a French translation in the Morning Post (18 September, 5, 18, 23 October 1827). A Latin translation is reprinted in Censura Literaria 10 (1809) 319-24.
The Curfeu tolls the Knell of parting Day,
The lowing Herd wind slowly o'er the Lea,
The Plow-man homeward plods his weary Way,
And leaves the World to Darkness, and to me.
Now fades the glimmering Landscape on the Sight,
And all the Air a solemn Stillness holds;
Save where the Beetle wheels his droning Flight,
And drowsy Tinklings lull the distant Folds.
Save that from yonder Ivy-mantled Tow'r
The mopeing Owl does to the Moon complain
Of such, as wand'ring near her sacred Bow'r,
Molest her ancient solitary Reign.
Beneath those rugged Elms, that Yew-Tree's Shade,
Where heaves the Turf in many a mould'ring Heap,
Each in his narrow Cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the Hamlet sleep.
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.
For them no more the blazing Hearth shall burn,
Or busy Houswife ply her Evening Care:
No Children run to lisp their Sire's Return,
Or climb his Knees the envied Kiss to share.
Oft did the Harvest to their Sickle yield,
Their Furrow oft the stubborn Glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their Team afield!
How bow'd the Woods beneath their sturdy Stroke!
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.
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.
Forgive, ye proud, th' involuntary Fault,
If Memory to these no Trophies raise,
Where thro' the long-drawn Isle and fretted Vault
The pealing Anthem swells the Note of Praise.
Can storied Urn or animated Bust
Back to its Mansion call the fleeting Breath?
Can Honour's Voice provoke the silent Dust,
Or Flatt'ry sooth the dull cold Ear of Death!
Perhaps in this neglected Spot is laid
Some Heart once pregnant with celestial Fire,
Hands that the rod of Empire might have sway'd,
Or wak'd to Extacy the living Lyre.
But Knowledge to their Eyes her ample Page
Rich with the Spoils of Time did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble Rage,
And froze the genial Current of the Soul.
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 desart Air.
Some Village-Hampden, that with dauntless Breast
The little Tyrant of his Fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his Country's Blood.
Th' Applause of list'ning Senates to command,
The Threats of Pain and Ruin to despise,
To scatter Plenty o'er a smiling Land,
And read their Hist'ry in a Nation's Eyes,
Their Lot forbad: nor circumscrib'd alone
Their growing Virtues, but their Crimes confin'd;
Forbad to wade through Slaughter to a Throne,
And shut the Gates of Mercy on Mankind;
The struggling Pangs of conscious Truth to hide,
To quench the Blushes of ingenuous Shame,
Or heap the Shrine of Luxury and Pride
With Incense, kindled at the Muse's Flame.
Far from the madding Crowd's ignoble Strife,
Their sober Wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd Vale of Life
They kept the noiseless Tenor of their Way.
Yet ev'n these Bones from Insult to protect
Some frail Memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth Rhimes and shapeless Sculpture deck'd,
Implores the passing Tribute of a Sigh.
Their Name, their Years, spelt by th' unletter'd Muse,
The Place of fame and Elegy supply:
And many a holy Text around she strews,
That teach the rustic Moralist to die.
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious Being e'er resign'd,
Left the warm Precincts of the chearful Day,
Nor cast one longing ling'ring look behind!
On some fond Breast the parting Soul relies,
Some pious Drops the closing Eye requires;
Even from the Tomb the Voice of Nature cries
Awake, and faithful to her wonted Fires.
For thee, who, mindful of th' unhonour'd Dead,
Dost in these lines their artless Tale relate;
If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,
Some hidden Spirit shall inquire thy Fate,
Haply some hoary-headed Swain may say,
"Oft have we seen him at the Peep of Dawn
Brushing with hasty Steps the Dews away
To meet the Sun upon the upland Lawn.
"There at the Foot of yonder nodding Beech
That wreathes its old fantastic Roots so high,
His listless Length at Noontide wou'd he stretch,
And pore upon the Brook that babbles by.
"Hard by yon Wood, now smiling as in Scorn,
Mutt'ring his wayward Fancies he wou'd rove;
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz'd with Care, or cross'd in hopeless Love.
"One Morn I miss'd him on the custom'd Hill,
Along the Heath and near his fav'rite Tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the Rill,
Nor up the Lawn, nor at the Wood was he.
"The next with Dirges due in sad Array,
Slow thro' the Church-way Path we saw him born.
Approach and read (for thou can'st read) the Lay,
Grav'd on the Stone, beneath yon aged Thorn."
Here rests his Head upon the Lap of Earth
A Youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown:
Fair Science frown'd not on his humble Birth,
And Melancholy mark'd him for her own.
Large was his Bounty, and his Soul sincere,
Heav'n did a Recompence as largely send:
He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a Tear:
He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a Friend.
No farther seek his Merits to disclose,
Or draw his Frailties from their dread Abode,
(There they alike in trembling Hope repose)
The Bosom of his Father and his God.