"Elegy in a Country Churchyard" has a kind of hushed, quiet sound to it, with a regular rhyme and rhythm—almost like the ticking of a quiet clock. The hush-hush quality to the poem seems appropriate, given both the subject (death!) and the setting (a graveyard in a country churchyard!). Let's look at an example in the second stanza:
Now fades the glimm'ring 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; (5-8)
The repeated S and Z sounds in this stanza represent what's called in the poetry biz consonance. The effect is a kind of shh-shh, hushing sound—almost as though the speaker were subtly asking us to lower our voices so that we could hear the wind in the trees and the call of the owl in the tower. And, of course, so that we can listen to his poem.
The regularity of the rhythm (check out the "Form and Meter" section for more deets on that!) helps to remind us of the passage of time, which seems appropriate, since the poem is about how people are remembered after they die. And the tick-tock-tick-tock regularity of the poem reminds us that our own lives are passing right now. Tick-tock!
The title of this poem seems pretty straightforward: it announces the genre of the poem and the place where it was written. But let's think a little more about that—an elegy is a mournful, sad poem, especially one that was written to mourn for the dead. And it was, in fact, written (or at least takes place) in a country churchyard. But if this is an elegy, whom is it mourning?
At the start of the poem, the speaker is mourning for the deaths of all the simple country folks who are buried in the churchyard. And by the end of the poem, he is imagining his own death. Some critics think that the poem was inspired by the death of Gray's best friend, Richard West, although West is never mentioned in this poem. So…what do you think? Is the speaker mourning death, in general? Is he mourning for his friend? Or is he really just mourning for his own mortality?
Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" takes place—you guessed it—in a country churchyard. And that means that it was written among all the gravestones of the dead members of that church. It's shaded by elm and yew trees, and there's an owl hooting in the background. Spooky, right?
But it's not supposed to be a spooky poem—this isn't about dead people coming back to haunt the living, it's about how the living remember the dead. And as the speaker imagines what these dead people's lives were like, the setting of the poem shifts—the speaker imagines their everyday lives in their country cottages. Most of these people were farmers, so he imagines them plowing their fields, and coming home to their wives and children at night.
But then the speaker imagines what people will say about him, when he dies, and the setting of the poem shifts again. Now we're in the shoes of some passerby who happens to see the name of the poet on a gravestone, and happens to ask someone what he was like. The speaker imagines that he'll be remembered mostly as a thoughtful guy who loved nature, who was often seen lost in thought under a tree or by the creek.
So, in spite of the poem's title, the setting really isn't creepytown. The emphasis is on the average, everyday, simple "country" part of the setting. There are lots of trees, and creeks, and farms, and no ghosts in the graveyard at all—unless you count the memories of the past that we all carry with us.
The speaker of "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is a thoughtful, pensive guy. He likes to be alone. At night. In graveyards. So that he can think about death. Good times. But you know the type, right? You might find someone like this speaker in your local coffee shop, wearing all black and maybe just a tad too much eye makeup, reading Camus or Sartre and thinking deep, deep thoughts.
But there's more to this speaker than his arguably morbid tendency to hang out in graveyards. He wants to make sure that we all remember the lives of people who lived before us, even the lives of simple, country folks like the ones buried in the churchyard where the poem takes place. He wants to be conscious of the way that he himself will be remembered after he's dead and gone, and that means thinking carefully about how other people see him now.
Sure, this might seem morbid, but the speaker seems to want to set himself apart from the kind of rich, snobby people who just care about erecting huge monuments and mausoleums in their own honor after they die. Instead, he wants to leave something less concrete behind him in the memories of the people that he cares about.
This is a long poem, it's true, but the form is pretty straightforward—four-line stanzas, or quatrains and a regular rhyme scheme and meter to go with it. The subject matter is something that most of us have thought about, too—death, and how people are remembered after they've died. But the poem was written way back in 1751—over 260 years ago! So the language that Thomas Gray used can be a bit tricky to navigate for modern readers without your ole' pal Shmoop to guide the way!
Like many poets of the 1700s (Alexander Pope, we're looking at you), Thomas Gray was pretty obsessed with the form of the poem. You'll have a hard time finding a place where he breaks out of his rigid iambic pentameter or ABAB rhyme scheme. In fact, the Romantic-era poets (William Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, and others) were partly reacting against this kind of poetic strictness when they started writing in a looser, more free-form style in the early 1800s.
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!)
The poem takes place around the time of sunset in a country churchyard—also known as a cemetery. Kinda spooky, right? And the darkness of the setting is appropriate for the subject matter, too. The speaker is talking about the unknown. He's contemplating mortality and what happens to people after they die. Of course, no one really knows what will happen after death, so the darkness might symbolize the mystery of what happens after we die.
This poem takes place out in the country. In fact, the setting is so important to the poet that he announces it in the title, just to be sure that you don't miss it! Why would the country make more sense for the setting of this poem? Well, country folks are generally seen as simpler than their city counterparts. Since they're farmers, they're more in tune with the earth and with nature, and more in touch with the things that really matter, according to the speaker—things like the cycles of life and death.
There are so many different species of tree and bird named in this poem that it's difficult to list them all. What are all these trees and birds doing in the poem? They're more than just pretty landscape, that's for sure.
For one thing, they could add to the important natural setting of the poem—like the farms and countryside, the trees and birds remind us of cycles of life: trees lose their leaves in the fall and they grow back in the spring. Birds lay eggs and have chicks in the spring. And in a poem about death and mortality, remembering that leaves do grow back and new baby birds are born every year is important. Not only might they represent the cycle of life, but specific types of trees and birds have different traditional symbolic meanings in Western poetry. Let's look at a few examples…
Sorry to disappoint you, Shmoopers, but this is a poem about death and how we're remembered after we die, so there's not a lot of smooching going on. If you want a sexier poem from the eighteenth century, try Alexander Pope…
No references to popular culture in this poem, but there are some famous references to this poem in later literature! Thomas Hardy clearly loved this poem—he picks up some of the same ideas and themes in his poem, "Afterwards," and he uses a line of the poem to title his novel, Far From the Madding Crowd. Jane Austen has the irritatingly stuck-up Mrs. Elton quote from this poem in her novel Emma, and William Wordsworth uses Thomas Gray as an example of what NOT to do as a poet in his "Preface to Lyrical Ballads."