Yesterday we visited St Giles Church at Stoke Poges, where Thomas Gray is believed to have written his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. Gray was at school at Eton, not far from Stoke Poges, having grown up in London, and spent many months staying with his aunt and uncle at Stoke Poges. It is fabled that he wrote his Elegy under the ancient yew tree just outside the church (below), and I must admit I spent some time trying to catch the mood of his poem, but the scorching heat and brilliant sunshine seemed somehow inappropriate.
Gray is also buried at St Giles, though interestingly his tomb is unnamed. His mother and aunt are buried in one tomb, on which he inscribed his grief, and later he was interred in the same place, and it seems somehow fitting, or perhaps ironic, that the author of the ‘mute inglorious Milton’ should have been buried without a memorial. However, a memorial has since been created, and quite an ostentatious one, just outside the grounds of the church. Now surrounded by a fence, it is a huge edifice topped with an urn, and with extracts from the Elegy inscribed upon it.
Gray’s Elegy is one of the most popular in the English language, apparently, which causes it to be the subject of some scorn, but it’s popularity cannot (to my mind) change its beauty and significance. Part of the school of ‘graveyard’ poetry, the poem expresses sadness at loss, the brevity of life, the passing of time, whilst also celebrating the pastoral landscape and the fleeting beauty we have around us. Significantly, Gray’s poem also celebrates those who are unknown to history, whose lives go unrecorded in the annals of time. His poem is infinitely sad, and yet his letters are often humorous, and what I have learned of him so far makes him seem an appealing character (see, for example, his ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat’). A friend of Horace Walpole, he is involved in the movement towards the inception of Gothic literature, something which is evident in the Elegy and also his ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’. Gray’s finely-wrought melancholy is delivered with a light touch, in many ways very unlike the other poems of the graveyard variety.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,And all the air a solemn stillness holds,Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’rThe moping owl does to the moon complainOf such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,Molest her ancient solitary reign.Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.