In most small towns in America, usually well beyond the interstate, you still come across old country graveyards. The headstones tilt, the names of the dead are furred with moss or speckled with lichen, but it hardly matters. Here, all the rich ambiguities of the living have been reduced to dates and surnames. No personal quirk or foible survives. Often you find whole families entombed in such shady spots, but it's hard, if not impossible, to recreate the complicated jostle of family life from mere numbers and letters. Mortality has become generic here, and if we feel a momentary pang, it's a remote sensation. But the peacefulness of old graveyards is deceptive. Though perhaps they should fill us with dread, I never imagine myself lying there, only those anonymous others. I'm glad that they're "at rest" — I like the notion — but for myself I'll take restlessness any day.
Eventually, of course, all of us will be represented by stones or urns or plaques bearing irreplaceable monikers the future won't know how to read. And maybe, in an age of so many mass graves, that will seem a luxury. But here, however violent or troubled their lives, the dead seem part of the natural order, and death itself looks benign. Finality has given way to a kind of continuance in which the solemn cypresses and yews and the stones themselves participate, as though the dead had entered another season, as yet unknown to us.
Poets have been inspired by such reflections since antiquity.The elegists of the "Greek Anthology" excelled at epithets in verse, as poignant as they were lapidary. But these were always individual; the names — of children, of friends, of lovers — intensify the pathos.What about those whose names have been forgotten? To elegize these is really to mourn for humanity itself, for all of us. In his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," first published anonymously to great acclaim in 1751, the fastidious and eccentric Thomas Gray did just that.
Gray was a gentleman-scholar of a peculiarly English type. A fixture at Cambridge, where he single-mindedly pursued his own idiosyncratic studies, first in Greek and Latin (he had a rare dexterity in the composition of Latin verse), then in history and natural science, he dabbled in poetry among many other interests. At Cambridge, his stated goal was "to do nothing," a goal at which he succeeded brilliantly. This meant not laziness but a pose of studious nonchalance; to toss off a learned treatise or a memorable poem as though it were a casual trifle, without obvious effort, was the object. In fact, Gray pursued his studies, and his intermittent literary career, obsessively to the end of his days.
Gray was an amateur in the original sense; he cultivated only what he loved. But in matters of mortality he was no amateur. Born in 1716, the fifth of 12 children, he was the only one to survive infancy; he too almost died from a fit but his mother grabbed a pair of scissors, slit open one of his veins, and saved him.When Richard West, his closest friend, died suddenly in 1742, Gray was bereaved and mourned him in verse for a decade.That grief nourished the great "Elegy."
Gray had wanted to compose a long philosophical poem based on Plato's "Republic" and the speeches of Isocrates but after several false starts — and luckily for us — it was the "Elegy" that emerged. The philosophical underpinnings are pretty well hidden; in fact, the poem's directness, together with its solemn music, are what first strike the reader and make it memorable. But the poem isn't as simple as it appears. Gray opens with four declarative statements:
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.
My grandmother used to recite these lines to me. I liked them but was puzzled. I'd never seen a plowman nor listened to a "lowing herd," and I doubt she had much acquaintance with them herself. It didn't matter; the grave tone was unmistakable. This is integral to the poem's charm: Its cadence has a stateliness that fascinates the ear. But the poem that follows forms variations on a theme as in music. Gray cunningly alternates his word order and draws on a huge array of rhetorical devices to drive his message home. So, in the fourth stanza the syntax shifts dramatically:
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell forever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
By not telling us who is "beneath those rugged elms" for three lines, Gray heightens the solemnity of effect. The forefathers may be "rude" but now they stand at an immeasurable distance from us. The 32 stanzas of the poem elaborate this distancing from divergent perspectives; seen from the grave, all the humdrum events of life — harvest and homecoming, family suppers, the rooster at daybreak — seem strangely momentous. But viewed against death's perspective, they stand uncovered as flitting and inconsequential. This double vision gives the poem its terrible, and convincing, pathos.
Gray died on July 30, 1771, some 235 years ago last week, and the "Elegy" (included in all anthologies of English verse) has retained its popularity ever since. More phrases have been drawn from it than from perhaps any other English poem: "Far from the madding crowd," "paths of glory," "some mute inglorious Milton," and many others. And it has prompted parody, as when Philip Larkin applied the famous line "the short and simple annals of the poor" to a line of washing with the emendation, "the short and simple flannels of the poor."The parody works, of course, only because the line is so much loved.
The most celebrated stanza offers a clue to the poem's magic:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
These are beautiful lines (Baudelaire admired them enough to translate them into French), but they are consoling too. There is dignity in the thought that we possess some "purest ray serene" in the overwhelming namelessness of death, and the little touch of self-pity — who doesn't feel unappreciated in the end? — makes it oddly credible. Gray, assiduous idler that he was, knew how to ring the changes on our noblest, as well as our homeliest, sentiments with equal suavity.