In his poem "Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard," Thomas Gray says, "The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r, / Awaits alike th' inevitable hour" (33-35). Gray stresses here the equality in "the inevitable hour" or, in other words, in death. He suggests that power, money, and social prestige will always fall to mortality. Even though certain people have opportunities and fame, in the end, everyone, he suggests, must face death. Gray understands the inequality in social class and writes his elegy about the people who never had the opportunity to reach their potential. He believes that there is no difference between the famous and the common people in the end, and he actually praises the common people for being humble and for being morally strong against the ridicule of the wealthy people. Gray speaks about death as an equalizer of all human beings in order to level distinctions between the upper class and the lower class. In doing so, he is then able to idealize and elevate the common pastoral man for their uncorrupted, though unharnessed, potential.
The poem begins with images of ending and gloom in order to set the somber tone and foreshadow death for the rest of the poem. In the first and second stanzas, Gray hints at loss and mortality. In the first stanza, Gray speaks about events that are coming to an end: a curfew bell tolling, a herd of cattle moving across the meadow, and a farmer returning home after a day's work. By mixing descriptions of ending with despondent wording, Gray is able to set up a tone of somberness and finality that continues throughout the poem. For example, "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, / The plowman homeward plods his weary way" (1-3). The words knell and weary convey the meaning of sadness. Knell means "the sound of a bell, especially when rung solemnly for a death or funeral" (OED Online). Gray uses this specific diction to foreshadow death and sadness.
The second stanza maintains the theme of somberness and ending of the first. After Gray describes the close of events in the first stanza, he begins the second by describing how the landscape is becoming less visible: "Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight" (5). Gray continues to develop the theme of ending through stating the loss of the appearance of scenery. Gray shows in the first two stanzas the end of routine lives and then the end of nature. By doing so, he suggests the end of living aspects and is transitioning into death.
After Gray alludes to death in the first two stanzas, he then states that death is an equalizer of all humans and no one can escape it. He observes that nothing can bring the dead back to life, no matter the advantages the wealthy and the powerful had. They are useless in the face of death. One such example is prestige: "Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust" (43). Gray expresses that honor and glory cannot make a person come back to life. No matter how famous he/she is, no matter how many times they are looked upon as leaders or heroes, nothing will make them come back from death. Gray also talks about flattery: "Or Flatt'ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?" (44). He states that flattering words cannot change the mind of death nor pacify the process of dying. Gray gives examples of advantages the upper class had in life but then shows how they are useless in the equalizing power of death.
By illustrating the equality of humans in death, Gray is then able to caution the wealthy not to ridicule the common people, for the wealthy are also susceptible to this inevitability. Gray speaks to members of the upper class and tells them not to look down on the simple, humble lives of the common people. He orders the rich not to laugh upon the poor people's unclear futures, their few possessions, or their few records in the annals. The speaker says:
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 (29-32).
Gray not only personifies "ambition" and "grandeur" to refer to the determined people and the wealthy, powerful people, but his use of synecdoche emphasizes their significance on these traits. Gray refers to these traits because they are frequently considered desirable during life due to the happiness and satisfaction that follows them. However, he suggests here that, ultimately, they are worthless. Power and motivation will not save a person from dying. Gray gives more examples of aspects and luxuries in life that do not survive in the face of death. It erases "heraldry", "the pomp of pow'r", and "all that beauty" (33-34). Coats of arms that represented the powerful people mean nothing when those people are deceased. All the ceremonies and parties of royalty are also obsolete. Death, Gray suggests, is absolute and inevitable: "The paths of glory lead but to the grave" (36).
Although he describes their humble and modest lives, Gray speaks about the unrevealed potential of the common people and their possibilities of greatness. He compares them to rough stones/jewels: "Full many a gem of purest ray serene, The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear" (53-54). In this line, Gray is comparing the humble, common people to undiscovered jewels in the caves at the bottom of the ocean. He suggests that this potential would stay hidden and no one would truly find their value. This line truly epitomizes the unique and priceless talent Gray believes the common people possessed. For example, he suggests that these people had abilities: "The rod of empire might have sway'd, / Or wak'd to ecstasy the living lyre" (47-48). He states that they could have the power and ability to lead an empire. He also says that another could have become a musician so great that it would seem the instrument was alive. The speaker suggests that these people had potential for ambition and grandeur.
However, Gray acknowledges that without opportunity, this potential lays untapped. He believes that if these people were given the opportunity, they could have achieved prominence. He states that the common people were full of ideas: "Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire" (46). Gray uses the metaphor celestial fire to describe the common people with abilities that God intended for them to have. But, he suggests this potential was never harnessed and these hidden talents were never revealed.
Although he speaks about their unharnessed potential, Gray praises the common people for not falling to vices and suggests the evil in power and wealth. Despite their unfulfilled destinies, he speaks highly of them for not falling towards immoral pathways such as greed, betrayal, etc. He suggests that wealth and prestige ultimately falls to corruption and other vices. Thus, Gray admires the common people because they did not become rich and famous. He believes they were constrained: "Their lot forbade â€¦ their crimes confin'd" (65-66). In this line, Gray explains that although the common people's circumstances restricted their opportunities, it also limited their wrongdoings. Because the common people did not have wealth, they were not affected by money or power-driven deeds.
After praising that they did not fall to vices, Gray then elevates the poor because they stayed humble with their simple lives. He respects them because they remained happy and satisfied with their families without money or prestige. Gray describes their happiness when doing their jobs: "How jocund did they drive their team afield! How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!" (27-28). He depicts them as cheerful people doing their work such as plowing their fields and raising crops to feed their families. Gray defines these people not by their belongings, but by their behavior and actions. He believes they never diverged from their modest living because they accepted their lifestyle: "Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray; / They kept the noiseless tenor of their way" (74-76). Gray expresses that these people did not desire to change their quiet way of life. They remained faithful to their duty as the common people and embodied humility. Gray idealizes these people because of their humble acceptance of who they are.
Ultimately, Gray's "Elegy" is a memento mori, or in other words, a reminder of mortality. This concept is supported in Gray's elegy when the speaker walks in the cemetery. As he gazes at the gravestones, he is not only reminded of the people that passed away but also of his own mortality as well. As he reads the simple graves, the speaker wonders about the people who were buried there. Gray then elevates these common people in his poem because he believes that the wealthy and the famous have already been given attention. For example, history books are dedicated to heroes and leaders. Gray acknowledges in this poem that the common people's poverty limited their opportunities and also their crimes. However, he does not speak about the endless opportunities that can be opened due to wealth and power. Humanity idolizes the successful, and Gray idolizes the poor. However, as he suggests, everyone is equal in death.