In his “Elegy,” Thomas Gray wrote a great, sometimes mystifying and troubling poem, and, where the pastoral impulse is concerned, an admonishing one…
No one born after the French Revolution, said the durable Talleyrand, can know how sweet life can be. This sentiment was quoted in his book about Metternich by that unsuspected romantic Henry Kissinger. Of course, one can take serious exception to it. The life of Moll Flanders was not sweet, nor were the lives of those sent to Tyburn Hill or impressed into the fleet. But there is much in the late eighteenth century that justifies Talleyrand’s remark. It has been argued, plausibly, that Rousseau’s “naturally” noble peasant was not natural at all, but a social product of the old order. His nobility derived from his knowledge of his station and its duties and the duties owed to him. One senses an irrecoverable civilization in the letters of Mary Montague, Horace Walpole, and Thomas Gray. Talleyrand’s remark is also justified by a sweetness in the late eighteenth-century English poets—many of them, at least—though mixed with a powerful elegiac sadness.
Indeed, the elegiac sadness is pervasive in both verse and prose. Gibbon wrote of the “decline and fall” of the Roman Empire. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France constitutes a sort of graveyard elegy on the old regime, combined with a timely warning to England. In his pages, Marie Antoinette dies achingly, like Clarissa in Richardson’s novel. A school of poets in the late eighteenth century is now known to literary historians as “the graveyard school” or the school of “meditative melancholy.” These writers seem to stand in the grave with Hamlet as he contemplates the skull of Yorick. Young wrote his “Night Thoughts,” and Blair wrote his “Grave,” and there are countless others.
In fact, history was moving in a direction quite different from the sensibility of melancholy. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the same year as Jefferson’s ringing “Declaration.” England was on the verge of unprecedented prosperity and world power. Yet the pervasive melancholy, sweet or not so sweet, is a cultural fact.
Oliver Goldsmith’s great poem, “The Deserted Village,” is a sweet-sad elegy about the supposed destruction of an English village, “Sweet Auburn.” Metaphorically, “Sweet Auburn” is clearly feminine, in this resembling Burke’s Marie and Richardson’s Clarissa. Auburn has been violated by the hard reality of money and trade. Politically, this poem offers no hope whatsoever, either through emigration to terrible Georgia or flight to London (where, indeed, the village maiden is violated). Contrary to Goldsmith, rural England was not being depopulated, and conditions generally were vastly improving, but these undoubted facts do not detract from the powerful emotional myth of “The Deserted Village.”
That poem is not a report on historical fact but a regretful elegiac pastoral, derived much more from Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s eclogues than from any thing taking place in rural England. Yet the sensibility of regret, here and elsewhere, achieves powerful expression. In “Sweet Auburn,” what is valuable and beautiful has “fled,” even as youthful beauty inevitably flees a woman. And the poem contains powerful insight about the loss of youth. Goldsmith describes “Sweet Auburn” as a place
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed.
Taken literally, this is nonsense. Auburn was not exempt from the cycles of the seasons and was climatically like any other neighboring English village. But the nostalgic poet is correct psychologically. The summers of childhood seem longer than those later on, and the poet, like his readers, enjoys this pastoral illusion. “Sweet Auburn” indeed. Rural English life was harsh and laborious. But Goldsmith achieves a stylistic magic. He was, as Yeats put it, sipping at the honey pot of his mind. And T.S. Eliot, with his usual inerrancy, deftly quoted Goldsmith’s lyric, “When lovely woman stoops to folly,” to contrast eighteenth-century feeling with his robot modern typist.
William Collins, who, like so many writers in this period, suffered from a mental disability, created another mode of pastoral, a peculiar one, in his virtually forgotten “Ode to Evening.” Almost nothing happens in this sunset poem. The entire “action” of the poem consists of literary echoes audible only to a coterie steeped in the minor poems of Milton and Pope and in forgettable lines from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. To experience pleasure from this poem, one has to know those other poems and listen for echoes and semi-echoes. This pleasure—if pleasure it be—lies in one inhabiting a kind of private world composed of relatively obscure literary echoes.
No doubt the greatest poem of personal retreat from this period was Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard,” a classic from its first appearance in 1751, printed—privately, of course—on Horace Walpole’s press at Strawberry Hill. Yet it is a much more difficult and ambiguous classic than those who have loved it realize. Gray had mastered the genre and here did something new with it. English poets in the previous three centuries had produced hundreds of pastoral elegies with widely varying success, and Gray was well aware of this extensive literature. William Shenstone, a contemporary, discussed the genre in an able essay entitled “A Prefatory Essay on Elegy” in terms thoroughly applicable to Gray’s poem.
As a prodigiously erudite classicist—indeed, linguist—Gray surely knew the elegiac writing of the ancient world Theocritus, Tibullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, Seneca, and Martial—as well as parallel material in Ecclesiastes, Job, the Psalms, and elsewhere in scripture. In learning, he was comparable to Milton, though not in achievement; his Greek was expert, and he understood the complex form of the Pindaric ode, the first English poet to do so. Unlike any of his contemporaries or predecessors, he knew Dante’s Commedia and must have read it in the Italian, since there were no translations. In a precious moment of the “Elegy,” its famous opening stanza, Gray echoes and almost translates lines 4-6 of the Purgatorio, Canto VIII, thus paying homage to the most tonally elegiac book of the Commedia.
Gray explored and celebrated the pastoral mode but also defined and criticized the roots of the pastoral impulse. In his “Eton Ode,” he idealized and falsified the lives of the Eton schoolboys, undoubtedly aware that the reader must know that schoolboys do not lead lives of ignorant bliss. He deliberately does not see the students but thinks about them from a good distance and filters his idea of them through a screen of poetic diction. Here, the pastoral impulse represents a relief from his present knowledge of adult reality, which is mostly expressed in a much more direct diction. In the “Elegy,” the only person he sees, at a considerable distance, is the plowman of the opening stanza. Then the glimmering landscape fades, and he hears a few audible sounds. He actually sees—though he does imagine, as in the “Eton Ode”—no other human beings. Later in the poem, evidently moving from where he saw the plowman into the churchyard itself, he sees the moldering country graves, yews and elms, and the humble tombstones. That’s all he actually sees in the entire poem, except for the plowman.
In Stanzas 5-7, he fantasizes about the lives of the villagers who now lie buried. In a manner like that of the “Eton Ode,” he creates imagined pastoral lives in pleasant terms and fantasizes that the lowly villagers were better off than the “madding crowd” in London. The villagers form a pastoral parallel to the Eton school boys. But Gray, in the “Eton Ode,” in the “Elegy,” and, indeed, in “The Bard,” suggests that the impulse toward the pastoral, the impulse to escape from experience and history, is related to a desire for death, the final and complete escape from experience and history. “The Bard” ends with a suicide, the “Elegy” with an imagined funeral and burial, and the Eton schoolboys might well consider suicide if the fate the poet foresees for them is really theirs.
Samuel Johnson admired the “Elegy” alone among Gray’s poems and wrote famously about it: “The Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. Had Gray written often thus, it would have been vain to blame him and useless to praise him.” This, l suppose, is correct as far as it goes, and Johnson must be speaking of discrete passages and lines, many of which have entered into the language. But not every bosom is drawn to the idea of death as a sweet release from experience. Taken as a whole, the “Elegy” can be read as an implicit warning against an excessive indulgence in pastoral illusion. One might, for a moment at least, be aesthetically half in love with easeful death, but to go further would be disabling and pathological.
Joseph Conrad famously said that there is a quality of death in every lie, and in its way, the pastoral mode is a lie. We can no more fully credit D.H. Lawrence’s vital Mexican and Indians than we can believe in the vital and heroic proletarians of Marxist pastorals. To the extent that we do credit them, they are a dangerous dream, like Gray’s villagers.
I propose here to pay close attention to some important aspects of the “Elegy.” The poem opens with the poet seeing—at a distance, of course—a plowman returning home with his herd of cattle. Just how the poet knows that this figure is “weary” we cannot tell. Perhaps it is reasonable to think that he is weary at the end of a long day, but the poet cannot know this. It is probable that the poet’s own mind is “weary,” which would provide the psychological motive for his coming pastoral dream and that he attributes his own weariness to the distant plowman. In a similar way, the poet’s pastoral memory of “Sweet Auburn” in “The Deserted Village” is rooted in his own weariness and adult melancholy.
Gray’s exquisite revision regarding that lowing herd is worth pausing over for pleasurable notice. He altered his verb from “winds” to “wind,” with the result that the herd is not a single mass but is distributed singly and perhaps in small groups across the meadow. A dispersed herd is more picturesque, and in comparison, a single herd would be almost crass. Certainly recognizable here is the sensibility of such painters of the picturesque landscape as Claude Lorraine—indeed, Gray, while a reclusive don at Cambridge, liked to amuse himself by strolling about the countryside with a “Lorraine glass.” This optical instrument was a tube with an eyepiece at the front end and a screen. Using it, the observer could compose his own picturesque landscapes on the glass at the other end of the tube.
In the poem, that “glimmering landscape” fades as the sun sets, and the only objective elements that remain are the distant bells in the sheepfolds and the tiny sound or hum of a beetle, along with a protesting hoot from an owl who presumably objects to the movement of the poet from the opening point of observation to the churchyard itself. Reaching the churchyard, the poet sees those moldering heaps, along with their surrounding elms and yews. The entire poem moves to an imaginary grave, the movement of feeling being toward death and away from the pains of experience and history. However, there is a kind of counter-movement. The poem begins at evening but ends with morning. Though the melancholic (and fictitious) “Youth” has died, life goes on.
Here at the beginning, having paid homage to Dante, Gray invokes the English pastoral tradition, to which drowsy tinklings, distant folds, beetles, and owls are familiar visitors. Recognizing such properties would give the initiated reader pleasure, as “Lycidas,” “II Penseroso,” Spenser, and Pope are heard in the lines. At the same time, Johnson’s common reader finds a different kind of pleasure in the wisdom of individual lines and stanzas. The “Elegy,” somewhat paradoxically, is a supremely literary poem and, at the same time, one of the most popular poems ever written.
After the first four stanzas, the poet, wandering through the cemetery in the dark, actually sees very little—the graves, the elms and yews, and the meager inscriptions on the tombstones. The rest of the section of the poem is entirely imaginary and takes place only in his mind. Stanzas 5-7, as already noted, present an imagined and highly idealized view of the lives the villagers led when alive. It is this pastoral view of the village that leads directly to the poem’s rejection of the life of the city, ambition, and the “madding crowd.” (As Dr. Johnson once remarked, pertinently, “He who is tired of London is tired of life.”) Such idealization of the villagers could occur only if the poet did not look at real rural peasants, who put in long days of hard labor in the fields and usually had short lives, health problems, and rude manners. Indeed, when the opportunity arose to work in the mines and mills, many peasants eagerly flocked to those jobs as preferable to rural toil. But it is very much the point here that the poet does not see his peasants, any more than his Eton boys, because he enjoys and perhaps needs his dream of them, the dream being the source of pleasing illusion.
Beginning with Stanza 8, the poet meditates, not on the actuality of rural life, but on the implications of his own idealization of it. He contrasts the humble rural cemetery with the proud tombs of Ambition and Grandeur—which, Cleanth Brooks was the first to argue, might suggest the mortuary sculpture of the wealthy and titled—and the “long-drawn aisle and fretted vault” of such abbey churches as Westminster and Bath.
Crucially, Gray must meet the objection—advanced powerfully by William Empson—that he is indifferent to the poverty and ignorance of the peasants.
He does so with mock-heroic ironies that cut down the pretensions of grand achievement. The ironies are much like those of “The Rape of the Lock,” but perhaps subtler and more delicious:
Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his field withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.
That fourth line about Cromwell and his country’s blood alters the pathos of the following four stanzas, which, from the standpoint of this poem, give up wider experience and history for the serenity of the village—”Their lot forbade them”
to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind.
Having rejected wider experience and history, the poet turns to the message he receives from the humble tombstones. He imagines a pitiful death scene and the administration of last rites by a village person and admits that the humble inscriptions represent, on the part of the peasants, a desire to be remembered that gives them a sort of common humanity with the great, whose sepulchers express the same “wonted fires.” In a fine touch, “Even in our ashes live their wonted fires,” Gray translates a line from the 169th sonnet of Petrarch, applying this to the humble peasants the high rhetoric of the Italian Renaissance poet laureate. This somewhat arcane literary allusion has the effect of impressing us that the meditation on death levels cultural and social distinctions. It is both tender and rather humorous to apply Petrarch to the peasants of Stoke Poges.
Beginning in Stanza 20, or line 77, the poem takes an unexpected and complicated turn, which has given rise to a great deal of critical discussion. In this concluding section, Gray drastically changed the ending of the original poem in the Eton Manuscript. In the notorious Stanza 24, a new cast of imaginary characters makes its appearance:
For thee, who mindful of the unhonour’d dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,
Haply some hoary-headed swain may say.
The question thus becomes who the meditative and melancholy poet is addressing as “thee.” In his 1947 book, The Well-Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks included an important essay on this poem that advanced the following theory about the identity of “thee.” Brooks thought that the meditation on death by this point in the poem had reached such an intensity that it subsumed the poet’s own ego, and he, therefore, addressed himself as “thee.” Perhaps, by extension of this, he emotionally identified himself with the dead, who are now “objects.”
In another important essay published in 1951, Frank H. Ellis advanced an alternative theory. In the stanzas in which the poet reflects directly upon the humble gravestones (lI. 77-84), their inscriptions “spelt by the unlettered Muse,” the poet seems to imagine a semi-literate rural stone-cutter who produced the rude inscriptions. Perhaps “thee” is that imagined stone-cutter.
The poet then imagines yet another character, a “kindred spirit,” who has come to the village to inquire about the fate of “thee.” He then imagines yet another character, a “hoary-headed swain,” a white-haired and aged peasant shepherd, who tells the story of the wasting away and death of “thee.” The illiterate swain, in this wholly imaginary little drama, speaks in language very much reminiscent of the minor poetry of Milton and explains in his entirely imaginary account how “thee” mysteriously lingered about the village and, for reasons unfathomable to the local peasants, seemed “drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn.” Then, for reasons unknown here, “thee” died. In the final stanza of the main part of the poem, we read an imaginary account of the burial of “thee” in the churchyard at Stoke Poges. If we are to think of “thee,” as Brooks does, as referring to Thomas Gray, there are difficulties, though not insuperable ones. In the “Epitaph,” we learn that the dead “thee” was “A youth to fortune and to fame unknown.” In 1751, when the “Elegy” was published, Gray was a famous and published poet. He had written much and had been widely praised. He was in his middle thirties, hardly a youth. Nor was he unknown to fortune, though he was not wealthy. He did have wealthy and powerful friends, including Horace Walpole, with whom he had gone on a Grand Tour of Europe. He had scarcely retired to the village unknown and unsung. On top of that, needless to say, he was still alive.
Brooks’s account of the poem can be saved, however, if “thee” is an idealized alter-ego of the poet, whom he imagines to have retired to the village, having rejected the world, and died unknown. In that case, the “kindred spirit” who came to inquire his fate might be considered the author of the “Epitaph” which ends the poem, except that the kindred spirit arrives when the “Epitaph” has already been engraved.
But, following Ellis, perhaps “thee” is the imagined stone-cutter, the semi-literate artificer of the humble inscriptions. The description of the doomed “thee” by the hoary-headed swain, however, does not portray a rural artificer but a melancholic much like the imagined Gray of Brooks’s interpretation. If we follow this line, the poet fastened upon the stone-cutter as he looked at the “frail memorials” and imagined him as a melancholic who had retired to the village. In that case, “thee” may have been the author of a single poem, the “Epitaph,” which he reserved for his own death. He was not entirely “mute.”
In its donnish way, this difference of opinion between Brooks and Ellis over the identity of “thee” in Stanza 24 of this great poem is amusing and perhaps culturally pleasurable. It is also possible that a flaw in the poem is indicated by the fact that both positions are arguable. In a great poem, we wish to know precisely what is happening and do not wish to have a loose pronoun floating around.
But it may be that the fog over “thee” comes down to something like this. Perhaps the meditative poet, now in his thirties and wandering in the churchyard, invents an ideal poet—either himself when a “youth” or another non-existent idealized poet, the stone-cutter, whom he imagines to have died. These idealizations are very similar—indeed, identical. In either piece of fiction, either an idealized Gray or an idealized Gray-like stone-cutter retreats to the village and dies young of melancholy. And, I suppose, either the fantasized younger Gray or the fantasized reclusive stone-cutter composed the “Epitaph.” Perhaps it is a flaw that, within the boundaries of the poem, we cannot determine which one, though in rebuttal to that view, it is not a flaw that we cannot determine the identity of the “familiar compound ghost” in “Little Gidding,” who both is and is not—is and is not, I suppose, T.S. Eliot. And of course, the hypothetical younger Gray and the hypothetical stone-cutter are very much the same figure.
Whatever we make of all this, the actual Thomas Gray lived until the age of fifty-four. He was a reclusive and erudite scholar at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge. He continued to write, had a substantial number of friends, and traveled within the British Isles. Though his poems were not great in number, it seems excessive of Arnold to judge that he “never spoke out” because he had been born into a culturally inhospitable eighteenth century. After all, he wrote the most famous single poem of his period and a number of others well worth more attention than they have received. His “white melancholy” or neurosis surely had an abundant source in his childhood, he having been the only one of eleven children to survive infancy. The ten others died of “convulsions,” probably as the result of behavior on the part of his father, a scrivener named Philip Gray. Gray himself was raised by his mother and her sister. He generally lacked energy and suffered from that “white melancholy,” and we can easily understand why his poetic production was slim. But he certainly is, as Keats said himself when he knew he was dying at age twenty-five, “among the English poets.” In his “Elegy,” he wrote a great, sometimes mystifying and troubling poem, and, where the pastoral impulse is concerned, an admonishing one. Verweile doch, du bist so schon, Goethe’s Faust is forbidden to say to the delicious moment. Linger only a while in the pastoral dream, Gray’s “Elegy” can be read as saying. Linger, but only a while.
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring 2002).
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 “It was now the hour that…pierces the new traveler with love if he hears in the distance the bell that seems to mourn the dying day” (Sinclair translation).
 PMLA, 66 (1971), 1008.