Okay, we have to hand it to those eighteenth-century poets like Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray. They sure were into form! Those guys were all about strict rhyme and meter, and they could really make it work. "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is an elegy, or a mournful poem, and it's written in what we call heroic quatrains. Huh?
Let's translate that:
A heroic quatrain is a four-line stanza written in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ABAB. Don't worry, we'll translate that further. We'll start with the rhyme scheme. Check out the first stanza:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,(A)
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea, (B)
The plowman homeward plods his weary way, (A)
And leaves the world to darkness and to me. (B)
The first line rhymes with the third line (as noted by the A), and the second line rhymes with the fourth line (the B). If you look at each stanza, you'll find that the same pattern is consistent throughout. And like we said, most eighteenth-century poets didn't play fast and loose with their form—you'll have a hard time finding exceptions to this pattern!
Now let's talk about the meter, or the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line. A heroic quatrain, as we said, is written in iambic pentameter. But what's that? Well, an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable: da-DUM. And "pentameter" means that there are five ("penta" = five) iambs in each line: da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. Check it out in action. Let's look at that first stanza again, but we'll highlight the syllables that you'd naturally stress while reading this out loud:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
There are five of those iambs, or da-DUM units, in each line. There you have it: iambic pentameter. And like the rhyme scheme, you'll find that Gray hardly ever deviates from his chosen form. He'll even shorten words to make them fit—like the word "over" in line 2, which he contracts to "o'er" to make it a single syllable. You'll notice that kind of poetic contraction a various points in the poem. Rather than have a messy syllable out of place, Gray (and other eighteenth-century poets) would just lop off a vowel and stick in an apostrophe and make a contraction.
It's seems almost contradictory that a poem about the lives of common, everyday people should be so obsessively concerned with poetic form and meter. After all, the common villagers that Gray writes about wouldn't give two straws about iambic pentameter, so why bother with the strict meter? Could be that Gray was trying to suggest that "heroic" quatrains are absolutely appropriate for writing about these common folks. After all, part of the point of his poem is that there could be unsung heroes buried in this churchyard. Why not use an elevated, fancy poetic form to honor and glorify them, since they don't have fancy monuments over their graves?
Some readers really dig the strict attention for form and detail in eighteenth-century poetry, while other readers prefer the more loosey-goosey free-form poetry of the Romantic-era poets in the early 1800s (poets like John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, Lord Byron), or the really free-wheeling poetry of the twentieth century (poets like T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound). What's your preference? Do you appreciate the skill it took someone like Thomas Gray to write a long poem in a set form? Or do you think that kind of attention to form limits a poet's ability to express him or herself? (Hint: there's no right answer here!)