Study Guide

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Quotes

  • Death

    The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, (1)

    The theme of mortality appears right from the first line, with the metaphor of the church bell ringing a "knell" for the end of the day. Since a "knell" is a bell toll for a person who has died, the speaker is personifying the day, and is also making death into a kind of universal—it's not just people who die, but even each day dies at sunset! Fortunately, the sun comes up again in the morning, so maybe there's a hint of hope here?

    Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
    The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep. (15-16)

    The speaker is using a euphemism to describe death here—he says that the dead villagers are just "sleeping." That also sounds hopeful, since after all, if you fall asleep, you're going to wake up again, eventually. Hey, maybe this death thing isn't so bad after all!

    The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
    No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed. (19-20)

    Oh no, wait! These guys aren't just sleeping, after all—they're never going to get woken up by the rooster crowing again. So much for that hopeful idea. This poem just took a turn for the depressing.

    Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield, (25)

    Sure, this line might sound like it's just about farmers harvesting their grain, but did you ever stop and think about what the Grim Reaper (a.k.a. the personification of Death in some Western cultures) is up to? Check out this image. That scythe that the Grim Reaper is holding is also a farm implement, intended for—you guessed it—harvesting the souls of dead people. So it's possible that the sickle these farmers are using is intended to make us think of the grim reaper harvesting souls. Hmm. Sounds a bit morbid, doesn't it?

    The paths of glory lead but to the grave. (36)

    The speaker wants us to remember that everyone dies. EVERYONE. And all of your worldly ambitions—college, a great career, whatever your "paths of glory" might be—only end in one place: death. Sorry to rain on your parade!

    Can storied urn or animated bust
    Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath? (41-42)

    Here the speaker warns against putting too much emphasis on monuments and fancy mausoleums to commemorate yourself or a loved one after death. After all, no fancy-schmancy statue or "urn" is going to bring you back from the dead.

  • Memory and the Past

    For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
    Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
    No children run to lisp their sire's return,
    Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share. (21-24)

    These are the lines where the speaker starts to imagine what the lives of the dead villagers were really like. They don't have fancy monuments over their graves, and no one wrote the story of their lives, so it's up to him to imagine what their past was really like. And it's a pretty cozy, homely image: nice fire in the fireplace, a wife there to fix supper, kids climbing into his lap when he gets home from work to get cuddled. But of course, this is all the speaker's imagination. Is this memory legit, do you think? Is it fair to project this kind of memory onto total strangers? Or is it a way of honoring them in spite of the fact that there is no record of their lives?

    Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
    If Mem'ry o'er their tomb no trophies raise, (37-38)

    The speaker wants to make sure that proud, snotty people don't turn up their noses at the poor folks from the village who couldn't afford to put up fancy monuments over their loved ones' graves. In fact, he personifies "Memory" here, saying that it was "Memory" that didn't put up the monuments, or "trophies." It's like he's trying to displace the blame.

    Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
    Or Flatt'ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death? (43-44)

    The speaker reminds us that no amount of honor or monuments in tribute to the dead are going to bring people back from the grave. So what's the point of memorials, then, according to the speaker? Is there a point? What kind of memorial would work?

    Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
    Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire; (45-46)

    The speaker imagines more about what the lives of the villagers were really like. Maybe—just maybe—there was a poet (someone whose heart was filled with "celestial fire") who lived here who just never had a chance to publish his or her work, and so we have no record of them. This kind of memory is purely hypothetical, of course—it's all a big "what if."

    Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
    Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood. (59-60)

    Another hypothetical: what if a poet as awesome as John Milton (who wrote Paradise Lost) had lived and died here, totally unknown and undiscovered? What if someone with the passion and ambition of Oliver Cromwell (the guy who ran the English Commonwealth after the assassination of King Charles I) lived and died here, but never had a chance to fulfill his ambitions?

    Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse,
    The place of fame and elegy supply: (81-82)

    Instead of a fancy monument or a literary biography, all these dead villagers get is a simple tombstone—badly spelt—with their names and the years that they lived and died. According to the speaker, does this mean that we should forget about them?

  • Man and the Natural World

    The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
    And leaves the world to darkness and to me. (3-4)

    The relationship of man and the natural world is brought up in the first stanza. The speaker watches a farmer go wearily home from the fields. That right there is one way to have a relationship with the natural world—work on a farm! You'll be in close touch with the earth, all right. But the speaker has a different type of relationship with the earth. He's pleased to be left alone, in the dark, with the natural world around him.

    And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
    Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight, (6-7)

    All the repeated S and Z sounds in these lines mimic the "buzzzzzzzzz" sound of the beetle "droning" along. The speaker sure has a good ear for nature.

    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. (13-16)

    It seems important to the speaker that the dead villagers are resting in a very natural setting—they're under elms and yew trees, under piles of turf. They're not in some musty churchyard or buried under stone monuments; they're one with nature. This seems to be the ideal way to spend eternity, at least from the speaker's point of view.

    How jocund did they drive their team afield!
    How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke! (27-28)

    The speaker imagines how the villagers worked in the natural setting of their farms and village. They were cheerful and strong! And the wood that they chopped for fuel or for building supplies seemed to acknowledge the superior strength of the villagers: it "bow'd" before them.

    "There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
    That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
    His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
    And pore upon the brook that babbles by. (101-104)

    Toward the end of the poem, we get to hear more about the speaker's relationship with nature. He wants to be remembered as the kind of guy who used to stretch out lazily under a tree and listen to the babbling brook nearby. Why might he want to be remembered this way? The villagers' relationship with the natural world always seems to have to do with work—they plow the fields and work with their livestock and chop wood for fuel. The speaker, meanwhile, gets to nap under a tree. What's up with that? Does the poem seem to privilege one kind of relationship with nature over the other?

  • Society and Class

    Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
    Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
    Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
    The short and simple annals of the poor. (29-32)

    The speaker seems to expect the reader—at least, rich, snooty readers—to look down their noses at the lives of the poor because they didn't accomplish anything worthy of being recorded in the history books.

    Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
    And waste its sweetness on the desert air. (55-56)

    The speaker uses a metaphor, though, to point out that some of the poor people buried here might have been worthy of being recorded in history books, but never had the opportunity. They wasted their lives in the "desert air" of their tiny village and were never recognized by the wider world.

    Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
    The little tyrant of his fields withstood; (57-58)

    There could have been someone like John Hampden, a man who stood up to the tyranny of the king, living in this village, only no one ever wrote down what he did. Does that make his accomplishments any less valid or legit?

    To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
    And read their hist'ry in a nation's eyes,
    Their lot forbade: (63-65)

    The speaker points out that the villagers' situation (their "lot") kept them from making a big splash in the history books. After all, they were pretty busy just keeping food on the table!

    Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
    They kept the noiseless tenor of their way. (75-76)

    The villagers had to live their lives in the seclusion of the village—outside of the national spotlight. They didn't make a lot of "noise," in that they didn't do anything that got recorded in the history books, but that doesn't mean that we should just forget about them.

  • Isolation

    The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
    And leaves the world to darkness and to me. (3-4)

    The speaker isolates himself from the very first stanza. He watches the last people still out and about—the "plowman" who was working in the fields—make their way home, and enjoys the feeling of solitude in the churchyard. He also seems to feel a sense of possession of the churchyard. Now that he's alone, he says that it has been left "to him." What's up with that, do you think?

    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, (13-15)

    The speaker makes a point of telling us that each individual dead villager is completely and totally alone in his grave. He goes so far as to call each grave a "cell," as though the dead villagers are prisoners in isolated prison cells or monks in solitary monastery cells. Death is isolating; everyone dies alone—we've all heard the clichés. But remember: they weren't yet clichés at the time Gray was writing!

    Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
    Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray; (73-74)

    The villagers described in the poem lived their whole lives in relative isolation. They lived far away from the noisy, "madding" crowds of cities like London. They spent their entire lives among a relatively small number of people. Does this mean that they were more prepared for the isolation of the grave than people who live in cities who are used to noise and crowds?

    Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
    They kept the noiseless tenor of their way. (75-76)

    Again, the villagers are described as "sequester'd," or protected from the outside world. Their town is insulated from the noise and bustle of modern life.