Posted on Jun 17, 2002 – 08:36 AM by Bill McCann
The articles in this ongoing series will celebrate the words and sounds of London. Examples of the sounds of Londoners from the famous “Cries of London” to witty prose, cutting satire and the works of some of the greatest poets in the English Language will all appear here.
Thomas GrayThomas Gray was born in London in 1716 and, through the efforts of his mother who had separated from his violent father, he was educated at Eton and Peterhouse, Cambridge. Whilst at the latter he formed a friendship with the future Prime Minister Horace Walpole, and accompanied him on the ‘Grand Tour! In 1739. He returned to England in 1741, took his bachelorship in civil law and took up residence in Peterhouse. The elegy was conceived in the churchyard of Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire and published on February 16th 1751. His mother died in 1753 and was buried at Stoke Poges. Gray was offered the Poet Laureatship in 1757 but he declined and moved to Pembroke College were he spend the remainder of is life in scholarly seclusion. He accepted the professorship of history and modern languages at Cambridge in 1768. He died in 1771 and was buried beside his mother in Stoke Poges.
His elegy is one of the best known and loved poems in English. It is smooth and graceful and describes familiar sentiments in wonderful phrases many of which will be instantly recognised by the reader. The poem itself is a division of the lyric. There are thirty-two stanzas, each of which is written in an elegaic quatrain of four decasyllabic lines. Each line is an iambic pentameter and the rhyming scheme is a-b-a-b.Elegy Written in a Country ChurchyardThe curfew tolls the knell of the parting day,The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,And leaves the world to darkness and to me.Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,And all the air a solemn stillness holds,Save when the beetle wheels his droning flight,And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:Save that from yonder ivy-mantled towerThe moping owls does to the moon complainOf such as, wandering near her secret bower,Molest her ancient solitary reign.Beneath those rugged elm, that yew-tree’s shade,Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,The *****’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.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 knee the envied kiss to share.Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,Their furrow of the stubborn glebe has broke;How jocund did they drive their team afield!How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!Let not ambition mock their useful toil,Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smileThe short and simple annals of the poor.The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,And al that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,Awaits alike the inevitable hour:-The paths of glory lead but to the grave.Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the faultIf memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise,Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vaultThe pealing anthem swells the note of praise.Can storied urn or animated bustBack to its mansion call the fleeting breath?Can honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,Or flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death?Perhaps in this neglected spot is laidSome heart once pregnant with celestial fire;Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:But knowledge to their eyes her ample pageRich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;Chill penury repress’d their noble rage,And froze the genial current of the soul.Full many a gem of purest ray sereneThe dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,And waste its sweetness on the desert air.Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breastThe little tyrant of his fields withstood,Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood.Th’ applause of listening senates to command,The threats of pain and ruin despise,To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,And read their history in a nation’s eyes.Their lot forbade: nor circumscribes aloneTheir growing virtues, but their crimes confined;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 prideWith incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strifeTheir sober wishes never learn’d to stray;Along the cool sequester’d vale of lifeThey kept the noiseless tenor of their way.Yet e’en these bones from insult to protectSome frail memorial still erected nigh,With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d MuseThe place of fame and elegy supply:And many a holy text around she strews,That teach the rustic moralist to die.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 lingering look behind?On some fond breast the parting soul relies,Some pious drops the closing eye requires;E’en from the tomb the voice of nature cries,E’en in our ashes live their wonted fires.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 enquire thy fate,-Haply, some hoary-headed swain may say,’Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawnBrushing with hasty steps the dews away,To meet the sun upon the upland lawn;There at the foot of yonder nodding beechThat wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,His listless length at noon-tide would he stretch,And pore upon te brook that babbles by.’Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove;Now drooping, woeful-wan, like one forlorn,Or crazed with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.’One morn I missed him on the custom’d hill,Along the heath and near his favourite tree;Another came; nor yet beside the rill,Nor upon the lawn, nor at the wood was he;’The next with dirges due in sad arraySlow through the churc-way path we saw him borne,-Approach and read (for thou canst read) the layGraved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.’The EpitaphHere rests his head upon the lap of EarthA youth, to Fortune and to Fame unknown;Fair science frown’d not on his humble birth,And melancholy mark’d him for her own.Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere;Heaven did a recompense as largely send:He gave to misery all he had, a tear,He gain’d from Heaven (’twas all he wish’d) 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.