Comparing Poems Essays - StudentShare
"The first notable criticism of the Elegy did not appear until the 1780s. Johnson's brief but eloquent tribute in the Lives of the Poets (1781) was followed in more senses than one in 1783 by John Young's Criticism of the Elegy (2nd edn, 1810), a detailed discussion of the poem in a manner deliberately imitating Johnson's. There is also a chapter on the Elegy in John Scott's Critical Essays (1785) pp. 185-246. Discussion of the poem in the next century tended to be pre-occupied with such matters as G.'s sources, the location of the churchyard and G.'s relationship to the 'Age of Reason', and to attempt little more critically than general appreciation of G.'s eloquence, along the lines of Johnson's tribute. Some recent discussions of the poem, in addition to those mentioned above, which should be consulted are: Roger Martin, Essai sur Thomas Gray (Paris, 1934) pp. 409-36; William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) p. 4; Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (1949) pp. 96-113; F. W. Bateson, English Poetry: A Critical Introduction (1950) pp. 181-93; and three essays by Ian Jack, B. H. Bronson and Frank Brady in From Sensibility to Romanticism, ed. F. W. Hilles and H. Bloom (1965) pp. 139-89. Amy L. Reed's The Background to Gray's Elegy (New York, 1924), investigates melancholy as a subject in earlier eighteenth-century poetry, but does not throw a great deal of light on the poem itself.
The crucial fact about the poem, of which by no means all discussions of the Elegy take account, is that we possess two distinct versions of it: the version which originally ended with the four rejected stanzas in the Eton MS, and the familiar, revised and expanded version. Many of the difficulties in the interpretation of the poem can be clarified if the two versions are examined in turn. As has been stated above, Mason's assertion that the first version of the poem ended with the rejected stanzas appears to be fully justified. In this form the Elegy is a well-constructed poem, in some ways more balanced and lucid than in its final version. The three opening stanzas brilliantly setting the poem and the poet in the churchyard, are followed by four balanced sections each of four stanzas, dealing in turn with the lives of the humble villagers; by contrast, with the lives of the great; with the way in which the villagers are deprived of the opportunities of greatness; and by contrast, with the crimes inextricably involved in success as the 'thoughtless world' knows it, from which the villagers are protected. The last three stanzas, balancing the opening three, return to the poet himself in the churchyard, making clear that the whole poem has been a debate within his mind as he meditates in the darkness, at the end of which he makes his own choice about the preferability of obscure innocence to the dangers of the 'great world'. (It is the personal involvement of the poet and his desire to share the obscure destiny of the villagers in this version of the poem which make Empson's ingenious remarks in Some Versions of Pastoral ultimately irrelevant and misleading.)
Underlying the whole structure of the first version of the Elegy, reinforcing the poet's rejection of the great world and supplying many details of thought and phrasing, are two celebrated classical poems in praise of rural retirement from the corruption of the court and city: the passage beginning O fortunatos nimium in Virgil's Georgics ii 458 ff and Horace's second Epode, (Beatus ille ...). For a study of the pervasive influence of these poems on English poetry in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, see Maren-Sofie Rostvig, The Happy Man (2 vols, Oslo, 1954-58). In the concluding 'rejected' stanzas of the first version of the Elegy the classical praise of retirement is successfully blended with the Christian consolation that this world is nothing but vanity and that comfort for the afflicted will come in the next, although G.'s handling of the religious theme is very restrained. His tact and unobtrusiveness are all the more marked when his poem is compared with the emotional, even melodramatic, effects to which the other 'graveyard' practitioners - Young, Blair and Hervey - are prepared to resort when handling the same themes. The appendix to the poem (see p. 140), giving some parallels between these final stanzas and Hervey in particular, will suggest G.'s relationship to the religious meditators, but he shares none of their cemetery horrors and emotional over-indulgence. The classical or 'Augustan' restraint and balance which preserved him from such excesses is a strength which is manifested similarly in the balanced structure of the poem as a whole, as well as in the balancing effect of the basic quatrain unit.
The conclusion of the first version of the Elegy ultimately failed to satisfy G., partly perhaps because it was too explicitly personal for publication, but also no doubt because its very symmetry and order represented an over-simplification of his own predicament, of the way he saw his own life and wished it to be seen by society. A simple identification with the innocent but uneducated villagers was mere self-deception. G.'s continuation of the poem may lack some of the clarity, control and authority of the earlier stanzas, but it does represent a genuine attempt to redefine and justify his real relationship with society more accurately by merging it with a dramatisation of the social role played by poetry or the Poet. As G. starts to rewrite the poem, the simple antitheses of rich and poor, of vice and virtue, of life and death, which underlay the first version, are replaced by a preoccupation with the desire to be remembered after death, a concern which draws together both rich and poor, making the splendid monuments and the 'frail memorials' equally pathetic. This theme, which runs counter to the earlier resignation to obscurity and the expectation of 'eternal peace' hereafter, leads G. to contemplate the sort of ways in which he, or the Poet into whom he projects himself, may be remembered after his death, and the assessments he gives in the words of the 'hoary-headed swain' and of the 'Epitaph' (not necessarily meant to be identical) also evaluate the role of poetry in society. The figure of the Poet is no longer the urban, urbane, worldly, rational Augustan man among men, with his own place in society; what G. dramatises is the poet as outsider, with an uneasy consciousness of a sensibility and imagination at once unique and burdensome. The lack of social function so apparent in English poetry of the mid- and late eighteenth-century is constantly betrayed by its search for inspiration in the past. Significantly, G.'s description of the lonely, melancholy poet is riddled with phrases and diction borrowed from Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton. The texture of these stanzas is fanciful, consciously 'poetic', archaic in tone.
If the swain's picture of the lonely Poet is respectful but puzzled, emphasising the unique and somehow valuable sensibility which characterises him, the 'Epitaph', from a different standpoint, assesses that sensibility as the source of such social virtues as pity and benevolence (see l. 120n). G.'s Pindaric Odes of the 1750s were to show his continuing preoccupation with the subject of the function of poetry in society: for all his assertions of its value, the deliberate obscurity of the poems themselves betrays G.'s own conviction that poetry could not and perhaps should not any longer attempt to communicate with society as a whole. The central figure of himself is a not totally unpredictable development of the Poet at the end of the Elegy: more defiant in his belief that poetry and liberty in society are inseparably involved with each other and his awareness of the forces which are hostile to poetry; equally isolated and equally, if more spectacularly, doomed.
Two marginal problems associated with the Elegy may be mentioned in conclusion. The early nineteenth-century tradition that General Wolfe, on the night before the capture of Quebec from the French in 1759, declared, 'I would rather have been the author of that piece than beat the French tomorrow', is examined in detail by F. G. Stokes in an appendix to his edn of the Elegy (Oxford, 1929) pp. 83-8. Stokes also deals in another appendix (pp. 89-92), with the tiresome question of 'The Locality of the Churchyard'. Not surprisingly, no definite identification of the churchyard can be made, in spite of the number of candidates for the honour. (In his own lifetime, G. was already having to deny that he had been describing a churchyard he had never visited.) Anyone versed in the 'graveyard' poetry and prose of the mid-eighteenth-century will be satisfied that G. borrowed the traditional apparatus of his churchyard from no particular location."