Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Thomas Gray

Edited by Jack Lynch

The copy-text is the first edition of 1751. I’ve adopted the line-indention and the separation of the quatrains that appears in later editions. I’ve preserved the spelling and capitalization; the letter is especially important because Gray often personifies abstract nouns, and I don’t want to be responsible for identifying some nouns as personification worthy of capital letters while reducing others to lowercase. I’ve emended lines 11, 96, and 105 with reference to later editions, substituted Aisle for Isle in line 39, and replaced born with borne in line 114.

The line numbers and notes are my own.

Revised 6 December 2023.

An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard.


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.

approbation = approval

The E D I T O R.

E L E G Y, &c.

The Curfeu° tolls the Knell of parting Day, curfew bell
    The lowing° Herd winds° slowly o’er the Lea,° mooing — wanders — meadow
The Plow-man homeward plods° his weary Way, trudges
    And leaves the World to Darkness, and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring Landscape on the Sight, [5]
    And all the Air a solemn Stillness holds;
Save° where the Beetle wheels his droning Flight, except
    And drowsy Tinklings lull° the distant Folds.° calm — sheep pens
Save° that from yonder Ivy-mantled° Tow’r except — dressed in ivy
    The mopeing Owl does to the Moon complain [10]
Of such, as wand’ring near her sacred Bow’r,
    Molest° her ancient solitary Reign. disturb
Beneath those rugged Elms, that Yew-Tree’s Shade,
    Where heaves the Turf° in many a mould’ring° Heap, grass — decaying
Each in his narrow Cell for ever laid, [15]
    The rude° Forefathers of the Hamlet sleep. uneducated
The breezy Call of Incense-breathing Morn,
    The Swallow twitt’ring from the Straw-built Shed,
The Cock’s shrill Clarion,° or the ecchoing Horn, trumpet blast
    No more shall wake them from their lowly Bed. [20]
For them no more the blazing Hearth° shall burn, fireplace
    Or busy Houswife ply her Evening Care;
No Children run to lisp their Sire’s° Return, father’s
    Or climb his Knees the envied Kiss to share.
Oft did the Harvest to their Sickle yield,° [25] give way
    Their Furrow° oft the stubborn Glebe° has broke; narrow trench made by a plow — soil
How jocund° did they drive their Team afield! cheerful
    How bow’d the Woods beneath their sturdy Stroke!
Let not Ambition° mock their useful Toil, pride
    Their homely° Joys and Destiny obscure; [30] simple, unsophisticated
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful Smile,
    The short and simple Annals° of the Poor. records kept year by year
The Boast of Heraldry, the Pomp of Pow’r,
    And all that Beauty, all that Wealth e’er° gave, ever
Awaits alike° th’ inevitable Hour. [35] in the same way
    The Paths of Glory lead but to the Grave.
Forgive, ye Proud, th’ involuntary Fault,
    If Memory to these no Trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn Aisle and fretted° Vault° carved — ceiling
    The pealing Anthem° swells the Note of Praise. [40] reverberating song of celebration
Can storied Urn or animated Bust° statue
    Back to its Mansion° call the fleeting° Breath? home — escaping
Can Honour’s Voice provoke the silent Dust,
    Or Flatt’ry sooth the dull cold Ear of Death!
Perhaps in this neglected Spot is laid [45]
    Some Heart once pregnant° with celestial° Fire, filled — heavenly
Hands that the Reins of Empire might have sway’d,° controlled
    Or wak’d to Extacy° the living Lyre. rapture
But Knowledge to their Eyes her ample Page
    Rich with the Spoils of Time did ne’er° unroll; [50] never
Chill Penury° repress’d their noble Rage,° poverty — passion
    And froze the genial° Current of the Soul. pleasing
Full many a Gem of purest Ray serene,° bright
    The dark unfathom’d Caves of Ocean bear:
Full many a Flower is born to blush unseen, [55]
    And waste its Sweetness on the desart Air.
Some Village-Hampden that with dauntless° Breast brave
    The little Tyrant of his Fields withstood;° stood up to
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
    Some Cromwell guiltless of his Country’s Blood. [60]
Th’ Applause of list’ning Senates to command,
    The Threats of Pain and Ruin to despise,
To scatter Plenty o’er a smiling Land,
    And read their Hist’ry in a Nation’s Eyes
Their Lot° forbad: nor circumscrib’d° alone [65] fate — limited
    Their growing Virtues, but their Crimes confin’d;
Forbad 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, [70] stifle
Or heap the Shrine of Luxury and Pride
    With Incense, kindled at the Muse’s Flame.
Far from the madding Crowd’s ignoble Strife,
    Their sober Wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d° Vale of Life [75] isolated
    They kept the noiseless Tenor° of their Way. usual path
Yet ev’n these Bones from Insult to protect,
    Some frail Memorial still erected nigh,° nearby
With uncouth° Rhimes and shapeless Sculpture deck’d, unsophisticated
    Implores° the passing Tribute of a Sigh. [80] begs for
Their Name, their Years, spelt by th’ unletter’d° Muse, illiterate
    The Place of Fame and Elegy supply:
And many a holy Text around she strews,
    That teach the rustic Moralist to dye.
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a Prey, [85]
    This pleasing anxious Being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm Precincts of the chearful Day,
    Nor cast one longing ling’ring Look behind!
On some fond Breast the parting Soul relies,
    Some pious Drops the closing Eye requires; [90]
Ev’n from the Tomb the Voice of Nature cries
    Awake, and faithful to her wonted° Fires. customary
For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
    Dost in these Lines their artless° Tale relate; simple, unsophisticated
If chance, by lonely Contemplation led, [95]
    Some kindred Spirit shall inquire thy fate,
Haply° some hoary-headed° Swain° may say, maybe — white-haired— rural man
    “Oft have we seen him at the Peep of Dawn
Brushing with hasty Steps the Dews away
    To meet the Sun upon the upland Lawn. [100]
“There at the Foot of yonder nodding Beech
    That wreathes° its old fantastic Roots so high, twists
His listless Length at Noontide wou’d he stretch,
    And pore° upon the Brook that babbles by. stare
“Hard by yon Wood, now smiling as in Scorn, [105]
    Mutt’ring his wayward Fancies° he would rove, unpredictable imagination
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,° lost
    Or craz’d with Care, or cross’d in hopeless Love.
“One Morn I miss’d him on the custom’d° Hill, usual
    Along the Heath, and near his fav’rite Tree; [110]
Another came; nor yet beside the Rill,° small stream
    Nor up the Lawn, nor at the Wood was he.
The next with Dirges° due in sad Array° sad songs — arrangement
    Slow thro’ the Church-way Path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou can’st read) the Lay,° [115] poem
    Grav’d° on the Stone beneath yon aged Thorn.” carved

The Epitaph

Here rests his Head upon the Lap of Earth
    A Youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown:
Fair Science° frown’d not on his humble Birth, knowledge
    And Melancholy mark’d him for her own. [120]
Large was his Bounty,° and his Soul sincere, generosity
    Heav’n did a Recompence° as largely send: compensation
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a Tear:
    He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a Friend.
No farther seek his Merits to disclose, [125]
    Or draw his Frailties from their dread Abode,° horrid home
(There they alike in trembling Hope repose)
    The Bosom of his Father and his God.

F I N I S.



The first two editions have wrote in the title; subsequent editions have written.
A curfew — the word comes from Anglo-Norman coeverfu ‘cover fire’ — is the bell that indicates the time at which fires have to be put out.
A yew is a conifer that was “formerly much planted in churchyards” (Shorter OED).
“(Esp. of a child) speak with imperfect pronunciation” (Shorter OED).
The practice of creating, granting, and describing coats of arms. Only those of gentle birth could receive a coat of arms, so here it stands for the nobility.
John Hampden (c. 1594–1643), an English politician whose attempted arrest by Charles I helped to spark the English Civil Wars.
John Milton (1608–74), English poet and politician. Milton is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), but he was active as a government propagandist during Cromwell’s Protectorate.
Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), English military leader during the Civil Wars and leader of the Protectorate after Charles I’s death.
Their Lot forbad
The syntax here is difficult. The meaning is “Their fate prevented them from commanding the applause of senates, despising threats of pain and ruin, scattering plenty over a smiling land, and reading history in a nation’s eyes; it not only limited the good things they could do, but also the crimes: their fate prevented them from wading through slaughter to get to a throne . . . .”
Frenzied, or acting madly. In 1874 Thomas Hardy published his breakthrough novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, a quotation from Gray.
The next
That is, the next day.