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Gray’s Elegy, still treading the paths of poetic glory

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ASKED once how England’s youth might be imbued with more patriotism, Winston Churchill replied: ‘Tell them of Quebec’.

He was referencing the famous military victory of 1759 in the Seven Years’ War, in which the British Army improbably scaled the Heights of Abraham to capture the French-held city.

However, the celebrated architect of that triumph, General James Wolfe, knew his place in the wider cultural firmament. Shortly before the battle (in which he was mortally wounded), a poem was recited among British officers as they crossed the St Lawrence River. After which, Wolfe turned to his men and declared: ‘Gentlemen, I had rather be the author of that poem than take Quebec.’

The author to whom Wolfe deferred was Thomas Gray (1716–71), who died 250 years ago today. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) was the poem. As many readers will recall, it begins:

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.

Elegy was a publishing phenomenon, going through four editions in two months, and more than 50 within the next 50 years.

It has been translated into dozens of languages, from Arabic to Welsh, and spawned more than 150 imitations. Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film, The Paths of Glory, owe their titles to it.

Gray’s 32-stanza poem has remained a verse-anthology perennial, and was a staple of Anglophone school curricula for well over two centuries. A late-Victorian critic claimed with some justification that it was ‘the most universally popular poem ever written’.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, never one to hold back, wrote of its ‘divine truisms that make us weep.’ These verities emanate from a central motif: Rich and poor alike entwined in death. The humble are as worthy of respect as the illustrious …

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.

Invoking the classical precept of memento mori, Gray reminds us that we are all destined for same end. It’s later than we think …

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

To this day, scholars debate whether Gray subtly advocates for a modest levelling up of society, to mirror the even-handedness of death. Or rather, as seems more likely, he acquiesces in the status quo, tacitly accepting the notion of the ‘deserving poor’.

A tone of gentle – though never mawkish – melancholy pervades the work. For most of us, our lives, our passing and our memory are apt to remain unheralded. (Though not, it seems, by ruminating, companionable poets who come after us).

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

There is the poignancy of what might have been. If circumstances had allowed, those who rest in peace in Gray’s churchyard – and one senses it is peace – could have played a prominent role on a grander stage, like venerable figures of the late Civil War.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast

The little tyrant of his fields withstood;

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,

Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

In which case, what worldly approbation and heavy sense of duty might they have known?

Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,

The threats of pain and ruin to despise,

To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,

And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes.

More probably, they lived and died unobtrusively – the fate of most. And in the end, Gray implies, anonymity is a good thing, gesturing to the classical Ovidian maxim, bene qui latuit bene vixit (‘he who has lived in obscurity has lived well’).

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,

Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

The most enduring and potent property of Elegy is its understated Englishness, reinforced by its ABAB stanza form, used in England since the 16th century. Congruent with its churchyard setting, the poem breathes an atmosphere of quiet, dignified Anglicanism. Consonant with the granite tombstones on which Gray muses, it engenders a sense of English imperishability.

Small wonder the gentleman-soldier and patriot-hero Wolfe was drawn to Elegy and, on a faraway river, fortified by it. As we conservatives navigate increasingly dangerous waters, perhaps literature like this – of consolation, above all of home – can have the same effect.

Thomas Gray lies buried where his magnum opus was most likely composed, in the churchyard of St Giles, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire.

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Stuart Major
Stuart Major is an independent scholar based in Sussex.

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