Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Thomas Gray invariably plays second fiddle to the more famous eighteenth-century British poet Alexander Pope in the literary history books, which is kind of a bummer, because Gray was a really interesting guy. Sure, he wrote relatively few poems, and of those few, most readers and critics agree that "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is far and away the best, but the question is, why did he write so few poems? What was holding him back? How could the guy who wrote the haunting, beautiful "Elegy" also write the relatively stilted and formal "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West" (1775)?
There are so many unanswered questions about Thomas Gray! If Shmoop had a time machine, we'd want to transport ourselves back to the late 1700s to try to get the Shmoop scoop on Gray. What made this guy tick?
Here's what we do know: his home life wasn't so great. His father went kinda crazy on occasion, and abused his mother. Not a very happy environment to grow up in! But that's the good thing about being a relatively well-to-do young man in the 1700s: you get sent to boarding school from a very young age, so you get to escape from the yelling and abuse at home. At Eton, Gray met his BFF, Richard West (whose early death inspired the poem, "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West") and he also made friends with Horace Walpole, who grew up to write the totally awesome, completely insane The Castle of Otranto, the novel that practically launched the literary Gothic movement (a.k.a. the literary ancestors of modern horror flicks).
But what else do we know about Gray? Not much, really—he wrote a lot of letters, but didn't share much personal gossip. Gray tended to start poems and never finish them, or else he'd finish them but never publish them. He was offered the prestigious post of British Poet Laureate in 1757, but he turned it down. It seems as though he might have lacked confidence in himself as a poet.
He only published the "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" because, after sending a few copies to his friends for their private enjoyment, some hack publishers got hold of it and tried to print a knock-off version without his permission. (Copyright laws weren't very strict in those days, so they'd have gotten away with it.) And yet the "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is hands-down one of the most beautiful poems written in the eighteenth century, and it certainly had a major impact on later writers, especially Romantic-era poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats, among others.
The "Elegy" asks us to honor the lives of common, everyday people—not just rich, famous folks. This idea of glorifying mundane, everyday things becomes central to the philosophies of British Romantics. That's part of why Gray's "Elegy" often gets interpreted as a kind of turning point from the more formal poetry of the 18th century, with its emphasis on rich and famous people, to the more loose, free-form poetry of the Romantics, which focused more on everyday folks.
The "Elegy" was probably inspired in part by Gray's sadness at the death of his friend Richard West. It's not just about death, but how people are remembered after they're dead (if that's a theme that interests you, you should check out "Afterwards" by Thomas Hardy). Gray muses about what happens after people die, and in the final stanzas of the poem, he admits his own fear of dying. It's a powerful and evocative poem. Even if the "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" were the only poem Gray ever wrote, Gray would deserve a place of pride in the literary history books, even alongside heavy hitters like Alexander Pope.
Why Should I Care?
Ever lost somebody that you cared about? No? Well, then you've probably at least experienced the loss of someone who moved far away. Still no? Well, not to bum you out, but chances are that you will—someday. And when that happens, you might find Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" to be just what the doctor ordered.
Gray's "Elegy" isn't just about death, and it isn't just doom and gloom. It's about the fear of being forgotten after you're gone. Gray looks at the graves of common folks, and instead of just shrugging and figuring that their lives weren't worth remembering, he takes the time to think about what made them tick. And apparently this poem hit a chord with the eighteenth-century readers. It has been translated into many different languages and reprinted many times, and different lines of the poem have been quoted so often that they almost sound cliché now.
So, even if you've never experienced the loss of someone close to you, you should give the "Elegy" a shot. It's a poem that managed to walk that fine line: with its moving meditations on the value of human life—even after death—it's both deeply personal and also universal.