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Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

  

by Thomas Gray

Stanza 4 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 13-16

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.

  • This stanza is all one long sentence, and the sentence structure is a bit wacky, so let's try to sort it out.
  • The subject and the verb of the sentence are way down there in the last line of the stanza: "The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep."
  • Hold up—the speaker isn't saying that the ancestors of the town (a "hamlet" is a tiny town, not an omelet with ham in it!) are impolite. "Rude" is used to describe someone who was from the country. Someone who wasn't sophisticated, and who was maybe a bit of a bumpkin. So the forefathers being described here are probably just simple country folks, not discourteous, impolite jerks. 
  • So what are these country forefathers of the hamlet doing? They're sleeping. Sounds peaceful, right?
  • Except, look at the third line of the stanza—they're not sleeping at home in their beds. They're sleeping in narrow cells, and they're laid in there forever.
  • Sounds like they're sleeping in only a metaphorical sense. These guys are dead and lying in their graves in the churchyard!
  • The first two lines of the poem set the scene. These graves are under elm and yew trees, and there are piles of turf on each one. 
  • So we're not just hanging out outside of a church as the sun goes down. We're actually hanging out in the graveyard. Spooky!

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