THOMAS GRAY AND CHURCHYARD REFLECTIONS
1st August, 2020
Richard Bentley - Public Domain
‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me…’
Few poems, if any, have worked their way so deeply into the English imagination – English identity, even – as Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. It is the closest thing we have to a poem that ‘everybody knows’ – not in its entirety perhaps, but in all those evocative phrases and twilit images that linger in the memory: ‘And all the air a solemn stillness holds’, ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen’, ‘Some mute inglorious Milton’, ‘The rude forefathers of the hamlet’, ‘Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’, ‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave’, etc.
The Elegy is a poem of twilight, and its mood of quiet, restrained melancholy matches the time of day – and the English temperament, which distrusts showy, untempered emotion and is chary of too much happiness. It is a pastoral poem, reflecting the English love of the domesticated countryside and our enduring nostalgia for an idyllic village life that probably never existed in the real world. The Elegy celebrates the notion – very appealing to a national character shaped by unusually deep-rooted democratic ideas – that the lowest-born might have the potential for greatness in them, that fame and glory rest on shaky foundations, and that, in the end, we are all levelled and made one in death.
Gray was certainly not the first poet to find inspiration in the graveyard: there was a whole school, now largely forgotten, of ‘graveyard poetry’ in the mid-18th century (Robert Blair’s The Grave, Edward Young’s Night Thoughts and Thomas Parnell’s A Night-Piece on Death are the prime examples). However, Gray’s Elegy rises far above any school, or any competition: it is, in its poetical power and its enduring impact, sui generis. Its roots may be in the classical elegiac tradition (though it is far from ‘correct’ as an elegy), but it partakes too of such English vernacular material as the grave-digger scene in Hamlet, and Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall, a work that, a century before the Elegy, breathes the same air: ‘’Tis all one to lye in St Innocents churchyard, as in the sands of Aegypt: Ready to be anything, in the ecstasie of being ever, and as content with six foot as the Mole of Adrianus.’
The Elegy was phenomenally popular from the moment Gray, a cripplingly self-critical poet, reluctantly published it (his hand having been forced by the imminent appearance of a pirated version). Its impact on English poetry was partly the creation of a mood – the melancholy twilit mood that can be felt in, for example, Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale – and partly a particular coloration of themes of death and remembrance that infuses Tennyson’s great poem of grief, In Memoriam, and the graveyard poems of Thomas Hardy. There are echoes of the Elegy in Eliot’s Four Quartets, especially Little Gidding ; George Barker’s poem At Thurgarton Church is a kind of reimagining of the Elegy for an age in which God seems absent and the church moribund; and two great American elegies – Allen Tate’s Ode on the Confederate Dead and Robert Lowell’s A Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket –are inescapably in the Gray tradition. Another American poet, Richard Wilbur, even addresses Thomas Gray and his Elegy directly in his great poem In a Churchyard.
The impact of Gray’s Elegy, however, extends beyond the realm of literature. Thanks to this one poem, the churchyard – especially the country churchyard – has a unique imaginative potency and emotional appeal: we feel at home in a churchyard, wandering among the gravestones in the long, soft shadow of Gray’s masterpiece. A recent book that expresses the melancholy charm of the graveyard especially well is These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards by the poet Jean Sprackland. Graveyards have always been, for her, ‘the otherworlds which have helped make sense of this world’. They offer a salutary perspective on life, showing unmistakably ‘how I and everyone around me is part of the inescapable repeating pattern so explicitly demonstrated here. Born … Departed this life. Touching the stones and reading the chiselled names of the dead keeps me acquainted with reality.’ Indeed: there is nothing like a stroll around an old-established, well populated graveyard to remind us that the dead are indeed ‘the great majority’, that we ourselves will inevitably join them in due course, and that the relationship between the living and the dead is a real and vital element of any healthy society. (It is a fundamental principle of conservatism that those living now have a duty not only toward the generations to come but to those generations that have gone before.)
The graveyard has been through many changes since Thomas Gray’s time. The churchyard described by him, ‘where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap’, where there was a certain earthy intimacy between the living and the dead (many of whom did not have individual graves), became a tidied-up, mown, clipped and manicured space with headstones arranged in regular ranks, and grave markers becoming ever less significant (and, usually, less attractive). This evolution can be seen, to sad effect, even in Stoke Poges churchyard, where Gray wrote his elegy. Today, however, the process of tidying up has to a considerable extent gone into reverse, as churches are encouraged to leave parts of their graveyards unmown, or minimally mown, to encourage wildlife. As a result the churchyard has found new importance as a valuable habitat for wild flowers, insects, small animals and, most fittingly, those living symbols of the human soul and of transfiguration – butterflies.
Running in parallel to this ‘rewilding’ of the graveyard has been a growing fashion for ‘natural’ burial – a fashion that does away with the churchyard altogether. In this form of burial, the mortal remains are interred, on suitably licensed sites, with minimal environmental impact – biodegradable coffins, shallow burial, no grave markers of any permanence. The dead, reclaimed by nature, return to earth in the most literal and efficient way, leaving no mark behind, becoming literally part of the landscape. It is easy enough to see the attraction of this form of burial – especially as it is usually conducted in attractively scenic settings – but, as it becomes more popular and our churchyards are less and less used for their traditional purpose, something very serious and real will be lost. ‘Natural’ burial grounds cannot serve as – in Jean Sprackland’s words – ‘repositories of individual stories, places of random discovery. You wouldn’t come to them to study the past; here the past is consigned to the earth, and the earth is allowed to forget.’ We should treasure our older graveyards all the more, if this is to be the future. More than ever, we need spaces in which the living can commune with the dead, read their stories, and learn and relearn the great lesson: as we are, so were they; as they are, so will we be.
Nigel Andrew’s The Mother of Beauty: On the Golden Age of English Church Monuments, and Other Matters of Life and Death– which includes a chapter on Gray’s Elegy – is available direct from the author (firstname.lastname@example.org), price £12 or on Amazon.
Jean Sprackland’s These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards is published by Jonathan Cape at £16.99 (£8.99 paperback).
Nigel is a regular and established blogger here.