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At Eton Gray's closest friends were Horace Walpole, Richard West (son of the lord chancellor of Ireland and grandson of the famous Bishop Burnet), and Thomas Ashton, afterwards fellow of Eton. This little coterie was dubbed " the Quadruple Alliance "; its members were studious and literary, and took little part in the amusements of their fellows. In 1734 Gray matriculated at Peterhouse, Cambridge, of which his uncle, Robert Antrobus, had been a fellow. At Cambridge he had once more the companionship of Walpole and Ashton who were at King's, but West went to Christchurch, Oxford. Gray made at this time the firmest and most constant friendship of his life with Thomas Wharton (not the poet Warton) of Pembroke College. He was maintained by his mother, and his straitened means were eked out by certain small exhibitions from his college. His conspicuous abilities and known devotion to study perhaps atoned in the eyes of the authorities for his indifference to the regular routine of study; for mathematics in particular he had an aversion which was the one exception to his almost limitless curiosity in other directions.
1.Thomas Gray Biography
2.The Works of Thomas Gray
3.“Elegy written in a Country Churchyard”
(1) Boast of heraldry:
Proud talk about the aristocratic or noble roots of one's family; snobbery.
Heraldry was a science that traced family lines of royal and noble personages
and designed coats of arms for them. (2) Pomp: ceremonies, rituals,
and splendid surroundings of nobles and royals. (3) Pomp of pow'r: alliteration.
(4) E'er: ever. General meaning of stanza: Every person—no
matter how important, powerful, or wealthy—ends up the same, dead.
37. Nor you, ye proud, impute
to these the fault,
38. If Mem'ry o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
39. Where thro' the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
40. The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
(1) Impute: Assign,
ascribe. (2) Mem'ry: Memory, a personification referring to memorials,
commemorations, and tributes—including statues, headstones, and epitaphs—used
to preserve the memory of important or privileged people. (3) Where
thro' . . . the note of praise: Reference to the interior of a church
housing the tombs of important people. Fretted vault refers to
a carved or ornamented arched roof or ceiling. (4) Pealing
anthem may refer to lofty organ music.
41. Can storied urn or animated
42. Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
43. Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
44. Or Flatt'ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
(1) Storied urn: Vase
adorned with pictures telling a story. Urns have sometimes been used
to hold the ashes of a cremated body. (2) Bust: sculpture of
the head, shoulders, and chest of a human. (3) Storied urn . . .
breath? Can the soul (fleeting breath) be called back to the body
(mansion) by the urn or bust back? Notice that urn and bust are
personifications that call. (4) Can
Honour's . . . Death? Can honor (Honour's voice) attributed
to the dead person cause that person (silent dust) to come back
to life? Can flattering words (Flatt'ry) about the dead person
make death more "bearable"? (5) General meaning of stanza:
Lines 41-45 continue the idea begun in Lines 37-40. In other words,
can any memorials—such as the trophies mentioned in Line 38, the urn
and bust mentioned in Line 41, and personifications (honor and flattery)
mentioned in Lines 43 and 44—bring a person back to life or make death
less final or fearsome?
45. Perhaps in this neglected
spot is laid
46. Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
47. Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
48. Or wak'd to ecstasy the living lyre.
(1) Pregnant with celestial
fire: Full of great ideas, abilities, or goals (celestial fire).
(2) Rod of empire: scepter held by a king or an emperor during
ceremonies. One of the humble country folk in the cemetery might have
become a king or an emperor if he had been given the opportunity. (3)
Wak'd . . .lyre: Played beautiful music on a lyre, a stringed instrument.
In other words, one of the people in the cemetery could have become
a great musician if given the opportunity, "waking up" the
notes of the lyre.
49. But Knowledge to their
eyes her ample page
50. Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
51. Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
52. And froze the genial current of the soul.
(1) Knowledge . . .
unroll: Knowledge did not reveal itself to them (their eyes)
in books (ample page) rich with treasures of information (spoils
of time). (2) Knowledge . . . unroll: Personification and anastrophe
a figure of speech that inverts the normal word order (knowledge did
ne'er enroll). (3) Chill . . . soul: Poverty (penury)
repressed their enthusiasm (rage) and froze the flow (current)
of ideas (soul).
53. Full many a gem of purest
54. The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
55. Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
56. And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Full . . . air: These
may be the most famous lines in the poem. Gray is comparing the humble
village people to undiscovered gems in caves at the bottom of the ocean
and to undiscovered flowers in the desert.
57. Some village-Hampden, that
with dauntless breast
58. The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
59. Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
60. Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood.
(1) John Hampden (1594-1643).
Hampden, a Puritan member of Parliament, frequently criticized and opposed
the policies of King Charles I. In particular, he opposed a tax imposed
by the king to outfit the British navy. Because he believed that only
Parliament could impose taxes, he refused to pay 20 shillings in ship
money in 1635. Many joined him in his opposition. War broke out between
those who supported Parliament and those who supported the king. Hampden
was killed in battle in 1643. Gray here is presenting Hampden as a courageous
(dauntless) hero who stood against the king (little tyrant).
(2) Milton: John Milton (1608-1674), the great English poet and scholar.
61. Th' applause of list'ning
senates to command,
62. The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
63. To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
64. And read their hist'ry in a nation's eyes,
The subject and verb of Lines
61-64 are in the first three words of Line 65, their lot forbade.
Thus, this stanza says the villagers' way of life (lot) prohibited
or prevented them from receiving applause from politicians for good
deeds such as alleviating pain and suffering and providing plenty (perhaps
food) across the land. These deeds would have been recorded by the appreciating
65. Their lot forbade: nor
66. Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin'd;
67. Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
68. And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,
General meaning: Their
lot in life not only prevented (circumbscrib'd) them from doing
good deeds (like those mentioned in Stanza 16) but also prevented (confin'd)
bad deeds such as killing enemies to gain the throne and refusing to
show mercy to people.
69. The struggling pangs of
conscious truth to hide,
70. To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
71. Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
72. With incense kindled at the Muse's flame.
(1) General meaning:
This stanza continues the idea begun in the previous stanza, saying
that the villagers' lot in life also prevented them from hiding truth
and shame and from bragging or using pretty or flattering words (incense
kindled at the Muse's flame) to gain luxuries and feed their pride.
(2) Muse's flame: an allusion to sister goddesses in Greek and
Roman mythology who inspired writers, musicians, historians, dancers,
and astronomers. These goddesses were called Muses.
73. Far from the madding crowd's
74. Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
75. Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
76. They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
(1) General meaning:
The villagers plodded on faithfully, never straying from their lot in
life as common people. (2) Madding: maddening; furious; frenzied.
(3) Noiseless tenor of their way: quiet way of life.
77. Yet ev'n these bones from
insult to protect,
78. Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
79. With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
80. Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
General meaning: But
even these people have gravestones (frail memorial), although
they are engraved with simple and uneducated words or decked with humble
sculpture. These gravestones elicit a sigh from people who see them.
81. Their name, their years,
spelt by th' unletter'd muse,
82. The place of fame and elegy supply:
83. And many a holy text around she strews,
84. That teach the rustic moralist to die.
(1)Their . . . supply:
Their name and age appear but there are no lofty tributes. (2) Unletter'd
muse: Uneducated writer or engraver. (2) Holy text: probably
Bible quotations. (3) She: muse. See the second note for Stanza
18. (4) Rustic moralist: pious villager.
85. For who to dumb Forgetfulness
86. This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd,
87. Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
88. Nor cast one longing, ling'ring look behind?
General meaning: These
humble people, though they were doomed to be forgotten (to dumb Forgetfulness
a prey), did not die (did not leave the warm precincts of cheerful
day) without looking back with regret and perhaps a desire to linger
a little longer .
89. On some fond breast the
parting soul relies,
90. Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
91. Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
92. Ev'n in our ashes live their wonted fires.
General meaning: The
dying person (parting soul) relies on a friend (fond breast)
to supply the engraved words (pious drops) on a tombstone. Even
from the tomb the spirit of a person cries out for remembrance.
93. For thee , who mindful of th' unhonour'd Dead
94. Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
95. If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
96. Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate ,
(1) For thee . . . relate:
Gray appears to be referring to himself. Mindful that the villagers
deserve some sort of memorial, he is telling their story (their artless
tale) in this elegy (these lines). (2) Lines 95-96:
But what about Gray himself? What if someone asks about his fate? Gray
provides the answer in the next stanza.
97. Haply some hoary-headed
swain may say,
98. "Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
99. Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
100. To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.
(1) Haply: Perhaps;
by chance; by accident. (2) Hoary-headed swain: Gray-haired country
fellow; old man who lives in the region.
101. "There at the foot
of yonder nodding beech
102. That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
103. His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
104. And pore upon the brook that babbles by.
(1) Nodding: bending;
bowing. (2) Listless length: his tired body. (3) Pore
upon: Look at; watch.
105. "Hard by yon wood,
now smiling as in scorn,
106. Mutt'ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
107. Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
108. Or craz'd with care, or cross'd in hopeless love.
(1) Wood, now smiling as
in scorn: personification comparing the forest to a person. (2)
Wayward fancies: unpredictable, unexpected, or unwanted thoughts;
capricious or flighty thoughts. (3) Rove: wander. (4) Craz'd
. . . cross'd: alliteration.
109. "One morn I miss'd
him on the custom'd hill,
110. Along the heath and near his fav'rite tree;
111. Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
112. Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;
(1) Another came: another
morning came. (2) Nor yet: But he still was not. (3) Rill: small
stream or brook.
113. "The next with dirges
due in sad array
114. Slow thro' the church-way path we saw him borne.
115. Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
116. Grav'd on the stone beneath yon aged thorn."
(1) The next: the next morning. (2) Dirges: funeral songs. (3) Lay: short poem—in this case, the epitaph below.
117. Here rests his head upon
the lap of Earth
118. A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
119. Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth,
120. And Melancholy mark'd him for her own.
121. Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
122. Heav'n did a recompense as largely send:
123. He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a tear,
124. He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a friend.
125. No farther seek his merits
126. Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
127. (There they alike in trembling hope repose)
128. The bosom of his Father and his God.
General meaning: Here lies a man of humble birth who did not know
fortune or fame but who did become a scholar. Although he was depressed
at times, he had a good life, was sensitive to the needs of others,
and followed God's laws. Don't try to find out more about his good points
or bad points, which are now with him in heaven.
.For poetic effect, Gray frequently uses inversion (reversal of the normal word order). Following are examples:
Line 6: And all the
air a solemn stillness holds (all the air holds a solemn stillness)
Line 14: Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap (Where the turf heaves)
Line 24: Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share. (Or climb his knees to share the envied kiss)
Line 79: With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd (deck'd with uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture)
Omitting letters or sounds within a word.
Gray also frequently uses a commonplace poetic device known as syncope, the omission of letters or sounds within a word.
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea (line 2)
Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight (line 5)
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r (line 9)
The swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built shed (line 18)
Figures of Speech
..Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem.
Repetition of a Consonant Sound
The plowman homeward plods his weary way (line 3)
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn (line 19)
Nor cast one longing, ling'ring look behind? (line 88)
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn (line 107)
Or craz'd with care, or cross'd in hopeless love. (line 108)