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Possess the heart, and fables false as hell,
In that best moment, Nature throwing wide
NOTES ON GRAY'S POEMS
ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCH-YARD
The “Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard” was begun probably in 1742 at Stoke-Poges, Buckinghamshire, and finished in 1750 at Cambridge. On its completion, it was circulated in manuscript among Gray's friends, at whose suggestion it was given to the great book-maker, Dodsley, for publication. It appeared in print on February 16, 1751, and sprang into instant popularity. It was copied far and wide, and was translated into all of the principal languages of Europe within a few months after it came out. It is now ranked as one of the great classics in English literature, and upon it much of Gray's fame as a poet rests.
1. The curfew tolls the knell of parting day. In connection with this line Gray quotes from Dante:
“Squilla di lontano, Che paia 'l giorno pianger, che si muore.”. (He hears a bell from afar seeming to mourn the day that is dying.)
- Purgatory, Canto VII, 11. 5–6.
Curfew. The ringing of a bell at nine o'clock in the evening, originally designed as a signal to the people to cover fires, extinguish lights, and retire to rest. The practice was introduced by William the Conqueror. (The word is derived from the French couvre, cover, and feu, fire.)
2. Wind. Sometimes incorrectly printed “winds.” The mistake was made in the first edition of the poem.
13. That yew-tree's shade. The tree is still standing, and shades several graves with its huge branches.
16. Rude. Rustic, simple. The poor people were buried in the church-yard; the rich, inside the church.
19. The cock's shrill clarion. Note the similarity between this expression and the following:
“When chanticleer with clarion shrill
- PHILIPS, Cyder, Bk. I, 1. 753.
- MILTON, Paradise Lost, Bk. VII, 11. 443–444. “The cock that is the trumpet of the morn Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat Awake the god of day.”
SHAKESPEARE, Hamlet, Act I, Sc. I, 11. 148–151.
20. Lowly bed. The cots on which they were accustomed to sleep; not the grave.
26. Glebe. The ground. (From the Latin glaeba.)
33–36. The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, etc. Gray probably had in mind the following lines from West when he wrote this stanza:
“Ah me! what boots us all our boasted power,
Our golden treasure, and our purple state;
Monody on Queen Caroline, ll. 77–80. 35. Awaits. Not “await, as often printed. Hour is the subject, not the object, of the verb.
46. Pregnant with celestial fire. Full of divine inspiration.
51. Rage. Enthusiasm.
53–56. Full many a gem of purest ray serene, etc. The thought in this stanza was by no means original with Gray, and other writers had expressed it in very similar words.
“That, like to rich and various gems, inlay
- MILTON, Comus, 11. 22–23.
– YOUNG, Universal Passion, Satire V, 11. 229-232. “There is many a rich stone laid up in the bowels of the earth, many a fair pearl in the bottom of the sea, that never was seen, nor never shall be."
– Bishop HALL, Contemplations, Bk. VI, p. 872. 57. Some village Hampden. John Hampden (15941643), a celebrated English statesman, who refused in 1636 to pay the ship-money tax levied by King Charles the First, for which he was arrested and fined. He was killed at the battle of Chalgrove Field.
59. Some mute inglorious Milton. John Milton (1608– 1674). Milton and Hampden both lived in Buckinghamshire, the same county in which the Stoke-Poges churchyard (the one in which Gray probably began the Elegy) is located. (See introductory note.)
60. Some Cromwell. Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), who led the Puritans in their rebellion against Charles the First, and after the execution of the king (1649) became Lord Protector of the British Isles.
In the original manuscript appear the names of Cato, Tully, and Cæsar, in place of the ones now used.
72. With incense kindled at the Muse's flame. Four stanzas, later omitted, follow this verse in the original manuscript:
“The thoughtless world to Majesty may bow,
Exalt the brave, and idolize success;
Than power and genius e’er conspired to bless.