Posts Tagged ‘Elegy’
Gray’s Elegy is one of the most beautiful poems in the English language and has brought to the English language such immortal phrases as:
“Far from the madding crowd”
“The paths of glory”
“The unlettered muse”
“Some mute inglorious Milton”
When Abraham Lincoln was asked to help John Locke Scripps write a bio on him for his campaign, Abraham Lincoln quoted Gray’s Elegy:
“Why Scripps, … it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy,
The Short and simple annals of the poor.
That’s my life, and that’s all you or any one else can make of it.”
It is believed that Gray wrote his masterpiece, the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, in the graveyard of the church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire in 1750. The poem was a literary sensation when published by Robert Dodsley in February 1751 and has made a lasting contribution to English literature. Its reflective, calm and stoic tone was greatly admired, and it was pirated, imitated, quoted and translated into Latin and Greek. It is still one of the most popular and most frequently quoted poems in the English language: Before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, British General James Wolfe is said to have recited it to his officers, adding: “Gentlemen, I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec tomorrow”
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
by Thomas Gray
Notes and translations are provided with the text. Where a note exists, the line number will be shown in blue, and upon clicking the number, you will be taken to notes on that particular line…
My analysis of the poem can be found here.
[Era gia l' ora, che volge 'l disio
A' naviganti, e 'ntenerisce 'l cuore
Lo di ch' han detto a' dolci amici addio:
E che lo nuovo peregrin d' amore
Punge, se ode] — squilla di lontano
Che paia ‘l giorno pianger, che si muore.
[(It was already the hour which turns back the desire
Of the sailors, and melts their hearts,
The day that they have said good-bye to their sweet friends,
And which pierces the new pilgrim with love,
If he hears) — from afar the bell
Which seems to mourn the dying day.]
Dante. Purgat. l. 8. [Canto 8 lines i-vi.]
Even thus, the keen ey’d falcon swift descends
On Pallas’ bird victorious; long he watch’d
The tempting spoil, and she his rage defy’d,
Close shelter’d in her ivy mantl’d tower;
Compell’d abroad, while circling slow she wheels
In quest of food, and least expects the snare,
Strait from his airy flight the victor stoops,
As lightning-swift, and bears the captive prey. (450-57)
But hold, War’s Rumour! mark the loud Alarms!
Hark the shrill Clarion sounds to Arms, to Arms!
When once th’ inevitable Hour is come,
At which thou must receive thy final Doom;
Thy Noble Birth, thy Eloquence Divine,
And shining Piety shall nought encline
The stubborn Will of unrelenting Fate …
and Richard West’s “A Monody on the Death of Queen Caroline” (Dodsley’s Collection of Poems : II, 273):
Ah me! What boots us all our boasted power,
Our golden treasure, and our purpled state?
They cannot ward the inevitable hour,
Nor stay the fearful violence of Fate.
A collective (singular) subject is possible, though the word `hour’ might also be the subject of the word `awaits.’
O greatly bless’d with ev’ry blooming grace!
With equal steps the paths of glory trace ..
No breathing Marble o’er his Dust shall stand;
No storied Urn shall celebrate his Name …
He, to protract his aged Father’s Life,
Chose Skill in Med’cine, and the Pow’rs of Herbs;
And exercis’d a mute inglorious Art.
] In the Eton MS. this line was followed by four stanzas which were omitted in the published text. Here, according to Mason, the poem was intended to close; the “hoary-headed swain” and the epitaph were after-thoughts.
Her favour’d Sons from ‘midst the madding Crowd,
Her Sons select with gentle Hand she drew,
Secreted timely from th’austere and proud,
Their Fame wide-spreading, tho’ their Numbers few.
Ch’i veggio nel pensier, dolce mio fuoco,
Fredda una lingua, & due begli occhi chiusi
Rimaner doppo noi pien di faville.
[For I see in my thoughts, my sweet fire,
One cold tongue, and two beautiful closed eyes
Will remain full of sparks after our death.]
Petrarch. Son. 169. [170 in usual enumeration]
] lawn: meadow. In the Eton MS. after lìne 100 there is the following stanza: “Him have we seen the greenwood side along, /While o’er the heath we hied, our labours done, /Oft as the woodlark pip’d her farewell song,/With wistful eyes pursue the setting sun.” Mason is puzzled by Gray’s rejection of this stanza for the published text.
Sometimes compared to another elegy, John Milton’s “Lycidas,” lines 25-31:
Together both, ere the high lawns appear’d
Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
We drove afield, and both together heard
What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Batt’ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the star that rose at ev’ning bright
Toward heav’n's descent had slop’d his westering wheel.
] In some of the first editions of the poem, the following stanza preceded the epitaph: “There scatter’d oft, the earliest of the year,/By hands unseen are show’rs of violets found;/The redbreast loves to build and warble there,/And little footsteps lightly print the ground.” According to a marginal note of Gray, it was “omitted in 1753.” Mason explains the omission by saying that Gray found it formed “too long a parenthesis in this place.” The epitaph is not in the early Eton manuscript of the poem.
Warm’d by my Smiles, and kindled into Man,
Thy Soul to feel Heroick Flames began:
Till then to Fortune, and to Fame, unknown,
Who since defended, and adorn’d the Throne.
— paventosa speme. [— fearful hope]
Petrarch. Son. 114. [115 in usual enumeration]
Cleanth Brooks thought of the Elegy as ironic but it struck Samual Johnson as sentimental. Like any work of art, the poem presents itself as a mirror, it triggers a response in which we are reflected. Both Brooks and Johnson were probably right, because the poem stands as much on its own as it carries the soul of the reader within it.
And so does it reflect our society. Gray’s poem can be read as one that seeks the universal man within us, from the perspective of death. All the pomp of our society is stripped by this final event, and within it we are all the same. Gray then uses this as an allegory for life itself: if we are all the same in this final event, than perhaps we are more a product of events as we are ourselves. The woman next to us might be “Some mute inglorious Milton” and Milton himself might have lived an uneventful life if born in different circumstances.
In my intro I mentioned some people who quoted Gray’s Elegy, including Lincoln; in fact, there are many phrases you might recognize still today. An astounding three-quarters (well, nearly) of its lines (128!) have made it in the Oxford book of Quotations.
The true power of the poem, even for Lincoln when he quoted the work, is that we recognize its phrases through their power to console us. Yes, it laments someone’s passing, but in a way that affirms the life that preceded it, and it paints a glorious picture that lifts it from its seeming mediocrity and talks in terms that give meaning and a sense of solidarity. Even a bleak sentence such as “The Short and simple annals of the poor” shone in meaning to Lincoln, because it was an accurate description, and the idea of this seemingly deplorable life of the poor was connected in a carefully constructed web of meaning with Milton and Cromwell and all that is good and strong in human kind, without turning away from mankind’s darker side. The latter would have made the poem slip in a false romanticism, a dreamers lie, and the poem might have seem apologist. But Gray somehow encompasses the full spectrum of human existence.
The poem takes the side of the unremarkable, and therefore takes the side of everything that is unremarkable within us (human kind is vain, and cannot identify with art unless it sees himself reflected in it – this is when it develops meaning). The poem mourns our lost potential and takes our most desperate times in a loving embrace. It depicts a fellow who died after decade of anonymous labor, without the seed of education ever been planted within him, scarcely remembered in this world and unknown to any future humanity. With him is buried all his potential, unrealized – yet, Gray says, his life had many joys and by far fewer ill effects on others, unstained by the blood that often covers the spear of change, carried by the rich, the powerful, the famous, the Cromwell’s of this world. In the end, Gray values smaller things, the things that bond us, like friendship, which in its last act is confirmed in mourning, being cried for by someone else who cared for you. “On some fond breast the parting soul relies, / Some pious drops the closing eye requires”. Gray’s phrasing remains remarkably restrained and universal.