Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
by Thomas Gray
Stanzas 16-17 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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 forbade: […]
- We've been going through the poem one stanza at a time, but things get a bit too wacky here, and here's why: notice how Stanza 16 ends with a comma, and not a period? Yeah, we did, too. The sentence actually carries over between stanzas! This is called enjambment, and it can trip you up if you're not careful.
- Okay, so if we unravel the weird sentence structure, we can figure out what's going on here. You actually have to start at the end: The dead villagers in the graveyard are replaced with the pronoun "Their" in line 65.
- The dead villagers' situation, or "lot," kept them from receiving ("commanding") the applause and approval of politicians.
- Their situation also made it impossible for them to blow off threats of pain and ruin.
- Nor could they spread good stuff ("plenty") all over the country, even though that would win them a place in the history books in the eyes of their countrymen.
- Nope, the villagers were poor and died unknown because of their poverty, or "penury," as the speaker calls it in Stanza 13.