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Critics have spent entire books interpreting Gray's

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Commentary by Ian Lancashire (2002/9/9) Critics have spent entire books interpreting Gray's "Elegy." Is it ironic, as Cleanth Brooks would have us believe, or is it sentimental, as Samuel Johnson might say? Does it express Gray's melancholic democratic feelings about the oneness of human experience from the perspective of death, or does Gray discuss the life and death of another elegist, one who, in his youth, suffered the same obscurity as the "rude forefathers" in the country graveyard? Should Gray have added the final "Epitaph" to his work? Readers whose memories have made Gray's "Elegy" one of the most loved poems in English -- nearly three-quarters of its 128 lines appear in the Oxford Book of Quotations -- seem unfazed by these questions. What matters to readers, over time, is the power of "Elegy" to console. Its title describes its function: lamenting someone's death, and affirming the life that preceded it so that we can be comforted. One may die after decades of anonymous labour, uneducated, unknown or scarcely remembered, one's potential unrealized, Gray's poem says, but that life will have as many joys, and far fewer ill effects on others, than lives of the rich, the powerful, the famous. Also, the great memorials that money can buy do no more for the deceased than a common grave marker. In the end, what counts is friendship, being mourned, being cried for by someone who was close. ...read more.


-- finally reveals why he is in the cemetery, telling the "artless tale" of the "unhonour'd Dead" (93). He is one of them. Like the "rude Forefathers" among whom he is found, the narrator ghost is "to Fortune and to Fame unknown" (118). Like anyone who "This pleasing anxious being e'er resigned," he -- in this narrative itself -- casts "one longing, ling'ring look behind" to life (86-88). As he says, "Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries" (91). He tells us the literal truth in saying, "Ev'n in our ashes live their wonted fires" (92). These fires appear in his ashes, which speak this elegy. He anticipates this astounding confession earlier in saying: 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 wak'd to ecstasy the living lyre. As Nature's voice from the dead, the "living lyre," he addresses himself in the past tense as having passed on, as of course he did. Should some "kindred spirit" ask about his "fate," that of the one who describes the dead "in these lines," an old "swain" (shepherd) might describe his last days. If so, he would have seen, with "another" person, the narrator's bier carried towards the church and his epitaph "Grav'd on the stone" (116). Only a ghost would know, with certainty, that "The paths of glory lead but to the grave" (36). ...read more.


At other times, the five senses blur, as in "the madding crowd's ignoble strife" (73), or "This pleasing anxious being" (86), but these remain snapshots, though of feelings, not images. They flow from a lived life remembering its keenest moments in tranquillity. Some of these moments are literary. In 1768, Gray added three notes to "Elegy" that identify where he adopts lines in by Dante and Petrarch. "Elegy" is rife with other, unacknowledged echoes of poems by contemporaries, famous and obscure: Robert Colvill, Paul Whitehead, Henry Needler, Richard West, Alexander Pope, Samuel Whyte, Joseph Trapp, Henry Jones, John Oldmixon, and doubtless many others contributed phrases to Gray's poem. These formal elements in Gray's poetics beautifully strengthen the poem's content. "Elegy" gives us a ghost's perspective on his life, and ours. The old swain describes him as a melancholic loner who loved walking by hill, heath, trees, and stream. The epitaph also reveals that he was well-educated, a youth who died unknown. These are the very qualities we might predict in the writer, from the style of his verse. "Elegy" streams with memories of the countryside where the youth walked. The firm, mirrored linguistic structures with which he conveys those recalled moments belong to someone well-educated in Latin, "Fair Science," and well-read in English poetry. Gray did not just give his readers succinct aphorisms about what Isaac Watt would term, "Man Frail, God Eternal," but recreated a lost human being. In reading "Elegy," we recreate a person, only to find out that he died, too young, too kind, and too true to a melancholy so many share. ...read more.

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