Thomas Gray’s “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard”

I love these two stanzas, known for the beauty of their metaphors and the exquisite music of their rhyme and alliteration

Stanza 8

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

Thomas Gray is talking about the unknown villagers buried in the village graveyard, with no flourishing verses engraved on their tombstones.Let them not ,the rich and powerful people of ambition, mock their useful toil, their simple joys and obscure and unsung lives.

The contrast of the rich and the powerful with the lowly and poor is so effectively presented here:

Ambition vs. Useful Toil
(ambition for self vs. toil for others)
Grandeur vs.Homely Joys
(wealth and power vs.simple joys)
Grandeur vs.Destiny Obscure
(Flourishing verse in epitaph vs.Simple unlettered muse)

The music of the verse follows the bare simplicity of clipped sounds when it comes to dealing with the poor :

“The short and the simple annals of the poor”

Written in the Heroic Quatrain , (Four lines in iambic pentameter, with an “abab” rhyme scheme), the music of the verse is in keeping with the somber tone of a poem written in the graveyard.


Stanza 14

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

These are the most famous lines from the poem. Don’t they read , in their music of the verse, like Shakespeare’s Tempest lines ?

Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made..

The music in Gray’s lines is as exquisite. The poor villages sleeping here may have lived and died in obscurity and no glorious verses are found on their tombstones. But who knows they may in reality have been pure gems of the rarest hue found in mountain caves submerged in the depths of the ocean .They may have been flowers blooming in the desert,their fragrance unknown to the world.

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Unheard melodies

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! “

(Stanza 2 from John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn)

When we were in college we were not too much overwhelmed by the beauty of these lines which merely seemed epigrammatic, one of amazing brevity and language terseness. An old English teacher may talk about it at length stressing the beauties of the language but thought? We were not impressed whatever be the precocious genius of Keats. Now that we ourselves could be Old English teachers (though we are not) we suddenly realize that all that is not so much sound and fury but one that signifies a lot.

“Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter” is not mere Polonius type of brevity. An exquisite auditory experience from the melodies yet to be played by the musicians on the urn is conveyed through a visual medium of painting . How art is long and life is brief ,how art freezes the transient beauties of sensory experiences in a fourth dimension of time. The urn itself stands for the impermanence of life ,carrying its ashes in its beauty.That is how beauty becomes truth and truth beauty.

Husbands and(other) lapdogs

Then flash’d the living lightning from her eyes,
And screams of horror rend th’ affrighted skies.
Not louder shrieks to pitying heav’n are cast,
When husbands, or when lapdogs breathe their last;
Or when rich China vessels fall’n from high,
In glitt’ring dust and painted fragments lie!

(extract from the poem The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope)

When the Baron triumphantly snips one of the locks of the fair Belinda ,she gets into a fair rage,a sort of controlled emotion suitable to a society lady.But then emotions are emotions and when the occasion demands they have to be expressed.Therefore a living lightning ensues from her eyes and lady-like screams of horror issue forth ,rending the affrighted skies .The skies are indeed frightened by the loud screams and they are full of pity for the fair maiden whose locks have just been ravished by the Baron using a pair of scissors, a most murderous weapon that could be used on the curls of such a fair lady.

Never before have such loud screams been heard .Not even when husbands breath their last or even when their lapdogs breath their last in their warm laps.Not even when a rich Ming vase falls to the ground in pieces.

“The Rape of the Lock “ by Alexander Pope is a beautiful poem written in a typical mock-heroic strain. The poem offers a satirical commentary on the artificiality of the social mores prevailing then which placed emphasis on trivial things and social ostentation in preference to enduring values.

Shakespeare’s “mirror” images

Poor broken glass, I often did behold
In thy sweet semblance my old age new born;
But now that fresh fair mirror, dim and old,
Shows me a bare-boned death by time out-worn:
O, from thy cheeks my image thou hast torn,
And shivered all the beauty of my glass,
That I no more can see what once I was!

(Passage from The Rape of Lucrece , a poem by William Shakespeare)

Here Lucretius is mourning the death of his daughter Lucrece when she kills herself after her rape by Tarquin. He calls her a mirror for himself, now broken, showing only her bare-boned death .The mirror which once showed his own living image ( A child is a father’s image) is now broken showing a distorted image, implying his own death , she being a mere image of him.

“Shivered all the beauty of my glass” is a beautiful image which only Shakespeare could have thought of. A splintered glass can only give out fragments of an image. Lucrece has torn the image of her father from her cheeks when she has embraced death. Her death signifies his own death.