"An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard"
By Thomas Gray

Transcription, correction, editorial commentary, and markup by The Text Creation Partnership and Students and Staff of The University of Virginia
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Sources

London : R. Dodsley, 1751

This is the first printed edition of Gray's poem; later editions are sometimes titled "An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard." This pamphlet version was published at roughly the same time in a slightly different version in the Magazine of Magazines, a periodical that had obtained a copy of the poem in manuscript. (Such copies had been circulating among Gray's friends for several years.) Gray asked his friend Horace Walpole to get a print edition issued by a more respectable London publisher since an authorized publication in a periodical was not the way that he wanted his work to appear in the world. At Gray's request, Walpole enlisted the prestigious London publisher Robert Dodsley, who rushed the text into print to beat the periodical version.

Our edition is built from the version produced by the Text Creation Partnership. We have changed the long "s" in the original to a modern "s." Page images from this first edition are from the University of Virginia Special Collections Library.


Editorial Statements

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Original spelling and capitalization is retained, though the long s has been silently modernized and ligatured forms are not encoded.

Hyphenation has not been retained, except where necessary for the sense of the word.

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Citation

Gray, Thomas. "An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard". "An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard", R. Dodsley, 1751 . Literature in Context: An Open Anthology. http://anthology.lib.virginia.edu/work/Gray/gray-elegy. Accessed: 2024-04-18T00:51:56.211Z

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[TP] AN
ELEGYElegyElegy"An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard" is probably the most well-known and beloved poem in English from the eighteenth century. It was immediately popular with readers when it was first printed in 1751, and has been reprinted (usually often the later, slightly revised title "An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"), anthologized, recited, translated, memorized, studied, parodied, and quoted ever since. The poem's publication kicked off an entire movement of what has been known as "graveyard poetry," poems centered around a figure--usually a man--walking quietly through a graveyard, musing on his place in the cosmos and on his own mortality. The poem's author, Thomas Gray (1716-1771), did not write a great deal of poetry compared to many other canonical poets, and he published only a handful of poems in his own lifetime. He led a fairly quiet life as an academic in Cambridge. But the "Elegy" has been enough to ensure Gray a lasting place in English literary history.
graphic
What made Gray's "Elegy" stand out then and makes it significant now? Perhaps the most important clue is in the word "elegy" itself. An elegy is a poem of praise for the a dead person, and poets of this period very frequently wrote elegies to commemorate a death. Sometimes these were elegies for a famous person; other elegies were written to mark the passing of a family member or friend. Gray does something different. Rather than writing about an individual person and describing their virtues in the manner of most elegies, Gray offers praise for the long-gone, ordinary people whose lives are now largely forgotten, commemorated only by the names on the headstones in an undistinguished cemetary next to a typical small church in an unnamed English village. The poem praises ordinary, not extraordinary people, people whom the poet walking through the graveyard never knew. In its final stanzas, the poem then turns in another direction, as it offers an epitaph (that is, a poem that would be inscribed on a gravestone) that seems to be the future epitaph for the poet himself.
- [JOB]

WROTE IN A
Country Church Yard.

LONDON
Printed by R. DODSLEY in Pall-mall;
And sold by M. COOPER in Pater-noster-row. 1751.
[Price Six-pence.]
Advertisement.

THE following POEM came into my Hands by Accident, if the general Approbation with which this little Piece has been spread, may be call'd by so slight a Term as Accident. It is this Approbation which makes it unnecessary for me to make any Apology but to the Author: As he cannot but feel some Satisfaction in having pleas'd so many Readers already, I flatter myself he will forgive my communicating that Pleasure to many more.

The EDITOR.EDITOREDITORAlthough he is not identified here, the "editor" is surely Horace Walpole, Gray's friend for many years. When Gray learned that the poem was going to be published against his wishes in a periodical, the Magazine of Magazines, he wrote from his home in Cambridge to Walpole asking him to supervise getting a separate edition printed by a more respectable London printer. (There's a good chance, too, that it was Walpole's handwritten copy of the the poem that somehow made its way to William Owen, the publisher of the magazine, so it was his responsbility to make things right.) Walpole turned to Robert Dodsley, one of the most prestigious publishers in London at the time, and expedited the process. The magazine version and this stand-alone version came out at roughly the same time in February 1751.
AN ELEGY, &, 1 THE CurfeuCurfeuCurfeuA bell rung at the end of the working day, signaling the "curfew," the time when people should return home. Curfew bells continued to be rung in some villages well into the nineteenth century. tolls the Knell of parting Day, 2The lowing Herd winds slowly o'er the Lea, 3The Plow-man homeward plods his weary Way, 4And leaves the World to Darkness, and to me. 5Now fades the glimmering Landscape on the Sight, 6And all the Air a solemn Stillness holds; 7Save where the Beetle wheels his droning Flight, 8And drowsy Tinklings lull the distant Folds. 9Save that from yonder Ivy-mantled Tow'r 10The mopeing Owl does to the Moon complain 11Of such, as wand'ring near her sacred Bow'r, 12Molest her ancient solitary Reign. 6 13Beneath those rugged Elms, that Yew-Tree's Shade, 14Where heaves the Turf in many a mould'ring Heap, 15Each in his narrow Cell for ever laid, 16The rude Forefathers of the Hamlet sleep. 17The breezy Call of Incense-breathing Morn, 18The Swallow twitt'ring from the Straw-built Shed, 19The Cock's shrill Clarion, or the ecchoing Horn, 20No more shall wake them from their lowly Bed. 21For them no more the blazing Hearth shall burn, 22Or busy Houswife ply her Evening Care: 23No Children run to lisp their Sire's Return, 24Or climb his Knees the envied Kiss to share. 25Oft did the Harvest to their Sickle yield, 26Their Furrow oft the stubborn Glebe has broke; 27How jocund did they they drive their Team afield! 28How bow'd the Woods beneath their sturdy Stroke! 29Let not Ambition mock their useful Toil, 30Their homely Joys and Destiny obscure; 31Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful Smile, 32The short and simple Annals of the Poor. 7 33The Boast of Heraldry, the Pomp of Pow'r, 34And all that Beauty, all that Wealth e'er gave, 35Awaits alike th' inevitable Hour. 36The Paths of Glory lead but to the Grave. 37Forgive, ye Proud, th' involuntary Fault, 38If Memory to these no Trophies raise, 39Where thro' the long-drawn Isle and fretted Vault 40The pealing Anthem swells the Note of Praise. 41Can storied Urn or animated Bust 42Back to its Mansion call the fleeting Breath? 43Can Honour's Voice provoke the silent Dust, 44Or Flatt'ry sooth the dull cold Ear of Death! 45Perhaps in this neglected Spot is laid 46Some Heart once pregnant with celestial Fire, 47Hands that the Reins of Empire might have sway'd, 48Or wak'd to Extacy the living Lyre. 49But Knowledge to their Eyes her ample Page 50Rich with the Spoils of Time did ne'er unroll; 51Chill Penury repress'd their noble Rage, 52And froze the genial Current of the Soul. 8 53Full many a Gem of purest Ray serene, 54The dark unfathom'd Caves of Ocean bear: 55Full many a Flower is born to blush unseen, 56And waste its Sweetness on the desart Air. 57 Some Village -HampdenHampdenHampdenJohn Hampden (1594-1643) was a prominent member of Parliament who led the opposition against Charles I, helping to prompt the start of the English Civil War in the 1640s. Hampden was killed in a battle between Parliamentary forces and those of the King. that with dauntless Breast 58The little Tyrant of his Fields withstood; 59 Some mute inglorious MiltonMiltonMiltonThe poet John Milton (1608-1674), author of Paradise Lost, and also a prominent supporter of the Parliament's side in the English Civil War. here may rest, 60 Some guiltless of his Country's Blood. 61Th' Applause of list'ning Senates to command, 62The Threats of Pain and Ruin to despise, 63To scatter Plenty o'er a smiling Land, 64And read their Hist'ry in a Nation's Eyes 65Their Lot forbad: nor circumscrib'd alone 66Their growing Virtues, but their Crimes confin'd; 67Forbad to wade through Slaughter to a Throne, 68And shut the Gates of Mercy on Mankind, 69The struggling Pangs of conscious Truth to hide, 70To quench the Blushes of ingenuous Shame, 71Or heap the Shrine of Luxury and Pride 72With Incense, kindled at the Muse's Flame. 9 73Far from the madding Crowd's ignoble Strife, 74Their sober Wishes never learn'd to stray; 75Along the cool sequester'd Vale of Life 76They kept the noiseless Tenor of their Way. 77Yet ev'n these Bones from Insult to protect 78Some frail Memorial still erected nigh, 79With uncouth Rhimes and shapeless Sculpture deck'd, 80Implores the passing Tribute of a Sigh. 81Their Name, their Years, spelt by th' unletter'd Muse, 82The Place of Fame and Elegy supply: 83And many a holy Text around she strews, 84That teach the rustic Moralist to dye. 85For who to dumb Forgetfulness a Prey, 86This pleasing anxious Being e'er resign'd, 87Left the warm Precincts of the chearful Day, 88Nor cast one longing ling'ring Look behind! 89On some fond Breast the parting Soul relies, 90Some pious Drops the closing Eye requires; 91Ev'n from the Tomb the Voice of Nature cries 92Awake, and faithful to her wonted Fires. 10 93For thee, who mindful of th' unhonour'd Dead 94Dost in these Lines their artless Tale relate; 95If chance, by lonely Contemplation led, 96Some hidden Spirit shall inquire thy Fate, 97Haply some hoary-headed Swain may say, 98'Oft have we seen him at the Peep of Dawn 99'Brushing with hasty Steps the Dews away 100'To meet the Sun upon the upland Lawn. 101'There at the Foot of yonder nodding Beech 102'That wreathes its old fantastic Roots so high, 103'His listless Length at Noontide wou'd he stretch, 104'And pore upon the Brook that babbles by. 105'Hard by yon Wood, now frowning as in Scorn, 106'Mutt'ring his wayward Fancies he wou'd rove, 107'Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn, 108'Or craz'd with Care, or cross'd in hopeless Love. 109'One Morn I miss'd him on the custom'd Hill, 110'Along the Heath, and near his fav'rite Tree; 111'Another came; nor yet beside the Rill, 112'Nor up the Lawn, nor at the Wood was he. 11 113'The next with Dirges due in sad Array 114'Slow thro' the Church-way Path we saw him born. 115'Approach and read (for thou can'st read) the Lay, 116'Grav'd on the Stone beneath yon aged Thorn. The EPITAPH. 117HERE rests his Head upon the Lap of Earth 118A Youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown: 119Fair Science frown'd not on his humble Birth, 120And Melancholy mark'd him for her own. 121Large was his Bounty, and his Soul sincere, 122Heav'n did a Recompence as largely send: 123He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a Tear: 124He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a Friend. 125No farther seek his Merits to disclose, 126Or draw his Frailties from their dread Abode, 127(There they alike in trembling Hope repose) 128The Bosom of his Father and his God. FINIS.

Footnotes