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
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?
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?
Why does the speaker bring up historical figures (John Hampden, John Milton, and Oliver Cromwell in lines 57-64)?
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.