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Poem written by Thomas Gray:

    The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
      The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
    The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
      And leaves the world to darkness, and to me.

    Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
      And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
    Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
      And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:

    Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
      The moping owl does to the moon complain
    Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
      Molest her ancient solitary reign.

    Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
      Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
    Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
      The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

    The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
      The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
    The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
      No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

    For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
      Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
    No children run to lisp their sire's return,
      Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share,

    Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
      Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
    How jocund did they drive their team afield!
      How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

    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.

    The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
      And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
    Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:-
      The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

    Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault
      If Memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
    Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
      The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

    Can storied urn or animated bust
      Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
    Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
      Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

    Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
      Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
    Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
      Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

    But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
      Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
    Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
      And froze the genial current of the soul.

    Full many a gem of purest ray serene
      The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
    Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
      And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

    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.

    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 history in a nation's eyes,

    Their lot forbad: nor circumscribed alone
      Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
    Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne,
      And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

    The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
      To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
    Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
      With incense kindled at the Muse's flame.

    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 tenour of their way.

    Yet e'en these bones from insult to protect
      Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
    With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
      Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

    Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd Muse,
      The place of fame and elegy supply:
    And many a holy text around she strews,
      That teach the rustic moralist to die.

    For who, to dumb forgetfulness a prey,
      This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd,
    Let the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
      Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?

    On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
      Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
    E'en from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
      E'en in our ashes live their wonted fires.

    For thee, who, mindful of th' 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,
      'Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
    Brushing with hasty steps the dews away,
      To meet the sun upon the upland lawn;

    'There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
      That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high.
    His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
      And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

    'Hand by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
      Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove;
    Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
      Or crazed with car, or cross'd in hopeless love.

    'One morn I miss'd him on the custom'd hill,
      Along the heath, and near his favourite tree;
    Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
      Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

    'The next with dirges due in sad array
      Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne,-
    Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay
      Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.'
                   THE EPITAPH

    Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
      A Youth, to Fortune and to Fame unknown;
    Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth,
      And Melancholy mark'd him for her own.

    Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere;
      Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
    He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
      He gain'd from Heaven, 'twas all he wish'd, a friend.

    No farther seek his merits to disclose,
      Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
    (There they alike in trembling hope repose,)
      The bosom of his Father and his God.

Thomas Gray is a poet of great ability and great disappointment. His earlier poems, although of exceptional caliber, have failed to be acknowledged by the masses. Also, his later poems have been heavily criticized for vagueness, a blow responsible for causing his retirement. However, as unsuccessful as many of Gray’s poems are, they are brilliantly written. Expressions of self-evident truth, conveyed in a way that is mature, whimsical, and heartrending, characterize the majority of Gray’s poems. Of all Gray’s poems, though, there is one that stands out. “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” written as a response to the death of one of Gray’s closest friends, has received universal acclaim from people of all different social backgrounds and time periods.

“Elegy in a Country Churchyard” focuses on death and how everyone is equal and beautiful because of death. The flower that blooms for but a day and then withers is the more beautiful for it. One’s family members are never more cherished than when they lie on their deathbeds. The splendor of flowers and people, like everything in this universe, depends on their impending mortality; beauty cannot exist where death does not. Death brings equality to all human beings as well; when all are as nothing, all are equal. In, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Thomas Gray elegantly uses syntax, diction, and organization to express a tone of poignant beauty and equality in humanity.

Throughout his poem, Thomas Gray enhances his expression of the beauty and equality of life and death through his use of syntax. One of the aspects of syntax that he uses is repetition. In the fifth stanza, Gray discusses the dead and laments the fact that “the breezy call of incense-breathing Morn, \ the swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed, \ the cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn, \ no more shall rouse them from their lowly bed” (17-20). By using repetition of closely associated ideas, Gray places emphasis on the simple joys of waking up in the morning. It frames the beauty of life, illustrating that every action taken is beautiful and precious because humans are mortal. To get his point across, Gray also directly addresses his readers about the beauty and equality of the life of the lower class. He admonishes to “let not Ambition mock their useful toil, \ their homely joys, and destiny obscure...” (29-30). Many people believe that the life of the poor is simpler and of lesser quality than that of the rich. Gray, however, understands that there is as much, if not more, reward in honest work and a loving family than in perceived greatness. Additionally, Gray uses rhetorical questions to inspire lines of thought in his audience. He asks whether a “...storied urn or animated bust \ back to its mansion calls the fleeting breath? \ Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust, \ or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of death?” (41-44). His use of rhetorical questions helps the reader to realize that once one is dead, riches, honor, and charisma are insignificant. Death is unforgiving to all, careless of the circumstances of one’s life. Everyone has the same amount of meaning in life; in death, everyone amounts to the same silent dust.

Thomas Gray also uses diction to uphold, in his poem, a tone of melancholic beauty and equality in the lives of all people. In “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Gray refers to poor and simple country folk, considered base by high society, in the glory of their accomplishments. He exclaims: “how jocund do they drive their team afield! \ How bows the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!” (27-28). In the above two lines, Gray uses word choice to demonstrate the splendor of these unpretentious people. His use of the word “jocund” in the first line denotes the cheerful nature of these men as they work, while his use of the word “drive” connotes their majestic aspect as they impel their beasts of labor to work. Gray’s use of the word “bows” in the second line further connotes the regal nature of the country folk; it implies a yielding on the part of the woods to the nobility of the peasants who labor in them. These words convey the aura of regal tranquillity that that surrounds people and demonstrates the essential beauty of human life. Gray goes on to show the equality that death brings to all humans, no matter what their station in life. He tells the reader that “perhaps in this neglected spot is laid \ some heart once pregnant with celestial fire...” (45-46) In these two lines, Gray provides a contrast between the person in life and in death. In life, this person may be “pregnant with celestial fire;” living, he is full to bursting with greatness that rivals that of the stars. Now that he is dead, however, this man is a corpse, buried in a neglected spot. His grave, like that of the poor or the simple, is no longer visited or remembered by descendants or admirers. All humans fade from history and memory once they are no more; all return to earth, where one vein of soil is no greater or lesser than any other. Gray goes on to more elegantly express the hidden beauty that is possessed by most humans. He writes that “full many a gem of purest ray serene \ the dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: \ full many a flower is born to blush unseen, \ and waste its sweetness on the desert air” (53-56). In these two statements, Gray uses “gems of purest ray serene” and “flowers” as metaphors for people. Both of these forms express beauty; however, that beauty is not unique. Every gem is beautiful, as is every flower. He writes, however, that many of the gems are in caves at the bottom of the sea and many flowers bloom in the desert. With these words, he uses metaphors to imply that the greatness of simple people is often unseen but still present, nevertheless.

In addition to other literary modes, Thomas Gray uses clever organization to express the beauty and equality of humanity in his composition. In the first seven stanzas, Gray begins his poem by discussing the joys of life that the dead can no longer experience. He laments that for the dead “...no more the blazing hearth shall burn, \ or busy housewife ply her evening care: \ no children run to lisp their sire’s return, or climb his knees the envied kiss to share” (21-24). This entire first section is intended to express the beauty of life, the splendor of nature, the joys of a family, and the majesty invested in people by their very humanity. In the next section, composed of six stanzas, he stresses that humans are all equal and alike. He writes that “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.” (33-36). Death is the great equalizer; all humans are subject to it. No one has been spared the grave’s grasp. Gray uses these stanzas to intimate that in death, all people are brothers and sisters, facing the same great unknown. In his final three stanzas, the epitaph, Gray writes of a gravestone that belongs to everyone and to no one. On the tombstone is the epitaph that fits for every human being who has entered into this world. It reads that “large is his bounty, and his soul sincere, \ Heav’n does a recompense as largely send: \ he gives to Mis’ry all he has, a tear, \ he gains from Heav’n (‘tis all he wishes) a friend” (121-124). All people, no matter their material lot, receive a resplendent gift in life. Everyone experiences the sorrows of misery and everyone experiences the joys of friendship.

Thomas Gray’s poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” is a magnificent composition that expresses the basic humanity and equality of all human beings. This poem is written ahead of its time, expressing truths and ideas that are not yet universal. Composed in 1751, this poem has been read and discussed through time periods of slavery and discrimination in the United States of America and elsewhere, times when humans have not been viewed as universally beautiful and equal. Only at a time when everyone is considered alike and valued, can this poem live up to its true potential.

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