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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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!