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Romantic elements in Gray’s “Elegy Written in Country Churchyard” Essay Sample

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Romantic elements in Gray’s “Elegy Written in Country Churchyard” Essay Sample

Thomas Gray is generally and rightly regarded as a transitional figure in 18th century poetry, providing a bridge between the poetic sensibility of his own generation and the Romantic revolution of the future. His work shows the relation between the poetry of the new age and that of the 18th century. Several aspects of his poetry show the trends in the direction of romanticism, but he could never really escape form the spirit of the age in which he lived.

Gray’s “Elegy” is pervaded by an atmosphere of melancholy, which lends to the poem a romantic character. The poem, though possessing romantic qualities, bears also the 18th century neo-classical influences. Here he works within the rigid limitations of a four line iambic pentameter stanza rhymed abab, constructing stately and memorable poetic locutions while remaining strictly conventional in his rhythms, rhymes and diction. The very regularity of his heavy iambic beats help to create a sense of the timeless, changeless routine of country life. In style the “Elegy” is traditional and neo-classical. But in ideas and attitudes Gray breaks new ground. He celebrates the worth and humanity of the common man in a way that foreshadows the Romantics like Burns and Wordsworth. He ruminates with romantic melancholy over “the short and simple annals of the poor”. Moreover, in the later part of the poem where the focus shifts from the nameless dead to the poet himself, we get a strong subjective and introspective emphasis that is startlingly new.

A large part of the charm of the “Elegy” comes from the poet’s personal, sensitive approach to his subject. He lingers in the churchyard, noting the signs of approaching nightfall until the atmosphere of twilight musing is established, after which his reflections upon life and death have a tone of sad and intimate sincerity.

The sights and sounds described in the opening stanzas create a rural atmosphere and suggest that interest in nature, which in a highly developed form become one of the most conspicuous features of romanticism. In the opening stanza of the “Elegy”, the poet builds up an atmosphere of evening. The evening bell is ringing, thus marking the end of the day. The sheep are returning to the village over the pastureland, producing their natural sounds. The farmer is also walking heavily homewards, tired of the day’s labors. The darkness of the night is descending upon the world and the poet finds himself all alone. The subjective note enters the poem in the very first stanza:

“The plowman homeward plods his weary way

And leaves the world to darkness and to me”

The twilight is deepening into darkness and the landscape, which was dimly visible in the twilight, has now become invisible to the eyes. The air is full of silence and solemnity. The only audible sounds are the dull, humming sound of the beetle, which is flying about in circles and the tinkling of bells round the necks of sheep that are slowly falling asleep in their distant folds. Another sound that can be heard is the occasional hooting of the gloomy and lonely owl, which cries whenever it is disturbed by some unfriendly creature, as if the owl were complaining to the moon about undue interference with its privacy in the church-tower where it has always been an undisputed monarch.

The irrevocable nature of death, the extinction of gifts and abilities, which never found a chance to reveal to themselves, the poet’s anticipation of his own death are all full of pathos. The elegiac, meditative tone is sustained throughout a variety of turns in the thought. It is in the tradition of graveyard contemplation, but here the handling of the setting and the development of the meditation is done with high art.

Thereafter, the poem becomes impersonal, and the personal element re-appears towards the end. The personal reference, indeed, becomes more evident in the closing lines. The listless youth, muttering his wayward fancies in solitude and dying young, is in the first place Richard West who like Milton’s Lycidas cherished poetic ambitions that were frustrated by an early death. He is Gray himself, also ambitious, hypochondriac and unhappy and likely enough to come to a similar end. In its recognition of the dignity of simple lives lived close to the soil and in its sympathy with their fate, the “Elegy” looks forward to the humanitarian enthusiasm, which marked the phases of romantic poetry. The poem is, indeed, steeped in melancholy. The poem is an elegy not only on the death of the humble villagers who lie buried in the churchyard, but also, toward the close, an elegy on the poet’s own death. The poem is not written in the favorite meter of the 18th century, namely the heroic couplet. The poet employs a simple and slow moving stanza for, which he handles with great skill.

A large part of the “Elegy’s” appeal and greatness lies, of course, in it’s smoothly and meticulously wrought phrasing. This poem is an early symptom of discontent with the Augustan orthodoxy. It is early attempt to establish a freer and wider use of poetic language. It provides in a sense the starting point for the Wordsworthian revolution.

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