Study Guide

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard Themes

  • Death

    Well, Shmoopers, you probably saw this one coming: "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" is a poem that takes place in a cemetery, and it's about how people are remembered after they're dead. So you better believe that death is an important theme! But if this theme gets you down, don't worry—the poem isn't all doom and gloom, and there are plenty of other themes to consider in relationship to this central focus on death.

    Questions About Death

    1. What elements of the poem's setting or its opening images tip you off that it's going to be about death and mortality? How do you know? 
    2. At what point the poem do you think the speaker shifts from thinking about the deaths of the villagers in the churchyard to thinking about his own eventual death? Or do you think he's really just musing about his own death the whole time? Why do you think so?
    3. The poem is called an "elegy," or a mournful poem written in someone's memory. Is it an elegy written about the deaths of the villagers, or about the speaker's own death? Or about death in general? How do you know?

    Chew on This

    Glass half full alert! The presence of so many birds, trees, and other natural elements suggests that death is relieved by the possibility of renewal and new life.

    This isn't about the simply country folk. Nope, the poem exists for the speaker to mourn the inevitability of his own death.

  • Memory and the Past

    Okay, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" isn't just about death. We promised some less-depressing themes, and this is one of them: the poem is about how we're remembered after we're gone. That's not so bad, is it? What's that? Still don't like thinking about the whole "after you're gone" part? Well, fine—this one's a bit depressing, too.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. When the speaker starts thinking about his own death, why does he imagine what a random villager will say about him (95-116)? Why doesn't he tell us about his own life in his own words?
    2. Why doesn't the speaker think that it's a good idea to put up monuments to commemorate the dead? Don't fancy statues and monuments help us remember the past? What does he want us to do instead? 
    3. The poet seems to want to be remembered as a nature lover—someone who hangs out under trees listening to babbling brooks—rather than as a great poet. Why is that, do you think? Does being a nature lover have anything to do with being a poet? Why or why not? 
    4. How would you want to be remembered after you're gone? Try imagining what a neighbor or classmate would say about you after you die (or move away or graduate, if that's too depressing). Bonus points if you write it in heroic quatrains!

    Chew on This

    Statues shmatues! In this poem, the speaker wants to emphasize the importance of lives that are not commemorated by monuments or remembered by official history: the lives of common people that could potentially have been Miltons or Cromwells, if only they had been recognized and remembered.

    Thomas Gray suggests that death is democratizing—it strikes down rich people as well as poor people—but he goes further to suggest that we might be remembering the wrong people for the wrong things. Food for thought, gang.

  • Man and the Natural World

    If you're all depressed from reading about death and mortality in Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," not to worry. There are plenty of natural images to counteract all of that doom and gloom. For Gray, the natural world seemed to have provided a source of hope and renewal. All of the natural stuff, after all, goes through cycles of death and decay and new life. Maybe he was hoping that human life would do the same?

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Are the villagers able to appreciate nature the way that the speaker does? Why or why not? Does it take a poet—someone whose "heart is pregnant with celestial fire" (46)—to appreciate nature? Why do you think so?
    2. Why might the speaker hope to be remembered as someone who cared about nature—someone who relaxed under trees and listened to the brook (101-104)—instead of as a great poet?
    3. Why do you think the speaker uses so many images of birds and trees? What's the effect on your reading?
    4. How might the poem be different if it were set in a city churchyard?

    Chew on This

    Yay, nature! For Gray, nature and natural images represent cycles of death and renewal that provide a source of hope in the face of the inevitability of death and decay.

    The speaker evokes images of primitive, primeval nature to make the villagers seem more in touch with the cycles of life and death than typical city-dwellers. What do those guys know, anyway?

  • Society and Class

    Sure, you can sum up Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" as a poem about death and mortality, but there's a lot more to it if you look under the surface. Beneath all that stuff about death are questions about how it's best to remember the dead, and the implicit question there has to do with social class. After all, poor people don't have time to write fancy biographies of their lives or contemplate their own death and mortality—all they have time to do is work to stay alive and support their families. Nor do they have time or money to put up fancy monuments over their graves. Does this mean that their lives had less dignity or are less worthy of being remembered?

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Who do you think is the intended audience of this poem? Rich people? Poor people? The middle class? Women? Men? Why do you think so?
    2. Why does the speaker think that rich people (the "proud" of line 37) would blame the villagers for not having monuments over their graves? Does he really expect the rich to look down their noses at poor people's graves? Or is he really just addressing anyone in his audience who might dismiss the graves of the poor as being insignificant?
    3. Why does the speaker bring up historical figures (John Hampden, John Milton, and Oliver Cromwell in lines 57-64)? 
    4. In a poem ostensibly about death (it is, after all, titled an "elegy," or a poem of mourning), why might Gray choose to bring up the theme of society and social class at all? Does this distract the reader from Gray's larger points about mortality? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Gray's "Elegy," death is a democratizing force: it strikes down both the rich and the poor, so there's no point in erecting monuments to commemorate anyone. Death is a great equalizer!

    By bringing up historical figures like John Hampden, John Milton, and Oliver Cromwell, Gray suggests that poor people have as much potential to do great things as rich people, but their circumstances keep them from fulfilling their potential. Bummer.

  • Isolation

    The speaker of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" sure is excited to be left alone in a dark churchyard after the sun goes down. What's up with that? This guy might just like his solitude, but we're guessing that there's more to it than that.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Why is the speaker so pleased to be left by himself in the "darkness" of the churchyard in the first stanza? 
    2. How might the poem be different if the speaker had an interlocutor—in other words, if there were someone physically present in the churchyard with him to listen to and share his musings? How important is his solitude to the feel and meaning of the poem?
    3. The speaker imagines how he'll be remembered after he's gone in the final stanzas of the poem. He doesn't imagine being mourned or missed by any family or friends—he imagines what a total stranger will say about him. What's the effect of that choice on your reading? Does the speaker have no friends, or are they just not important to what he's trying to do here?

    Chew on This

    The speaker emphasizes the solitude of each individual villager in his "cell"-like grave (15). Since death isolates us all, it seems appropriate that the speaker should be completely alone during his musings about death and mortality. Talk about a downer!

    Because the speaker is contemplating the lives and deaths of complete strangers, it makes sense that he should imagine how his own death would be remembered by strangers, as opposed to by his own friends and family. Grim, but appropriate!