A Critical Appreciation of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” Written by Thomas Gray

This “Elegy” consists of 32 stanzas. Each stanza consists of four iambic pentameter lines for which they are called heroic quatrains. In the first three quatrains the poet has created a suitable atmosphere required for mourning the death of near and dear ones. Gray selects evening for the time of mourning. This gives him the advantage of suggesting both the ends of a day and the end of life. The evening also suggests the oncoming darkness and night in nature, and grief and melancholy in human mind.

The melancholic atmosphere of the evening has been intensified by a reference to the grief-stricken silence. It is further enhanced by the sound of the curfew bell, the droning of the beetle, the occasional hooting of the owl and the dying sound coming from the tinkling of the bells fastened round the necks of the sheep in the distant folds. Gray very carefully creates the setting of the poem in order to set the mood of mourning the first three stanzas. It is needless to say that the evening, the approaching night and its darkness, prevailing stillness and the fading sounds contribute to his melancholic mood.

In the next four stanzas, the poet passes from particular to general and refers to universal laws of nature. Pride in ancestral history, worldly power, physical beauty and wealth cannot save one from death. Death is the leveler of the poor and the rich, the beautiful and the ugly, the powerless and the powerful. So, there is nothing to be proud of worldly privileges. In these lines, there is a criticism of those who generally think that they are successful in this world. The generalization also has a moral tone.

The analysis of the structure shows that the “Elegy” has wide variety of moods and tones. Though a mood of melancholy runs throughout the poem, it is not always the same. In the beginning, a gloomy mood has been created and it has been associated with a subjective melancholic tone by a reference to “me” in the fourth line. But the tone soon becomes objective and pitiful as the cause of lamentation is revealed. Again the tone changes when the tone refers to the universal laws of life and death.

The poem is a famous elegy. Usually a poet writes an elegy on the death of his dear friend. Traditionally it is imagined that the dead person was a shepherd and his fellow shepherd, often the poet, sings sorrowfully in his praise. An elegy gradually passes from a sad state of mind to a state of hope as the poem ends. But this elegy is not written on the death of a single person. It is written to mourn the death of all the death villagers.