Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is one of “the best-known and best-loved poems in the English.” For each of its stanzas I provide [in brackets] a brief explanation of its meaning which may not be clear to a modern ear.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
[Someone has died; the cows are coming down the meadow; the farmer is coming home; and now the speaker has the world to himself.]
Now fades the glimm’ring 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;
[The landscape is fading away; the air is quiet except for the buzz of insects and the bells around the necks of livestock.]
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
[An owl is hooting, probably from a church tower, and disturbed by the presence of someone, probably the speaker.]
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
[The simple country folks are dead and lying in their graves in the churchyard.]
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.
[Things that usually wake people from sleep will not wake the dead.]
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.
[All the pleasures of life that the dead can no longer experience.]
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!
[All the things these dead people did while they were alive.]
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.
[We shouldn’t mock the simple lives that these dead peasants lived.]
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.
[Don’t make fun of the dead, for you will be dead one day too.]
Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
[Don’t blame the dead if they don’t have fancy monuments for gravestones.]
Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
[No fancy urn or bust will bring back anyone from the dead; no honors make death better.]
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.
[Maybe these dead had passions, ruled empires, or played music.]
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.
[Knowledge is like a collection of pages that get filled as time goes on; but the dead never get to see the pages now being written; and their potential is frozen in death.]
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
[Many gems and flowers are unseen; many heroic lives are never recognized.]
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.
[Some of the dead stood up to tyrants, were brilliant like Milton, or wretched as Cromwell.]
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 hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,
Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade 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.
[(The above three stanzas run together.)The dead’s situation in life prevented them from receiving approval, and made it impossible for them to avoid fear. Instead they died unknown because of their poverty. They also didn’t have time to do what it takes to get remembered in history, or to commit crimes like killing kings or being merciless. And they had no time to use fancy language or be inspired by the Muses.]
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 tenor of their way.
[These dead lived far from the city, and didn’t make a lot of noise in their lives.]
Yet ev’n 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 memorials may not be fancy, but they can cause us to pause.]
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.
[Their memorials were inscribed by the illiterate, who are ironically muses teaching the simple folk to be prepared for their own deaths.]
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?
[Who will give up life without looking back longingly at what they are leaving behind.]
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.
[We die best with our loved ones at our side, and nature cries from the grave that our passions live on.]
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.
[(The above two stanzas run together.) The speaker is aware of the dead so he is remembering them in this poem. What would a villager say about the speaker after the speaker died? The villager would say he saw the speaker hurrying through the grass to watch the sun go down.]
“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.
[And the villager would say he saw the speaker sitting under a tree looking at a brook.]
“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.
[And the villager would say he saw the speaker rambling in the woods.]
“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,
Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;
[And the villager would say that he missed seeing the speaker in his usual places.]
“The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”
[And the villager says that saw that the speaker had died.]
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.
[This is Gray’s epitaph. It says he was a young person of humble birth, a scholar and a poet, who experienced depression.]
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.
[He was generous and sincere; he fought his depression; and heaven sent him 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.
[Don’t concern yourself with his good and bad points for now he is resting, hopefully in eternal life with his god.]