Theme and Subject
The themes dealt in the Elegy are familiar, and there is nothing original in them. According to Douglas Bush "theElegy is a mosaic of traditional motifs, classical and modern." The dominant theme of the poem is death. It deals with the death of the rude fore fathers of the village, death as a common occurence in the world and the anticipated death of the youth who may be the poet himself or the his friend West in whose memory the poem has been written. In fact the shadow of death hovers over the poem. The opening line itself, with the curfew tolling 'the knell of the parting day' is indicative of death. Another theme treated in the Elegy is the transitoriness of all human glory and joy. The poet attempts to show that all 'the paths of glory lead but to the grave.' By implication, the futility of all human ambitions and aspirations is hinted at. The contrast between the lives of the rich and poor or the privileged and the unprivileged forms another theme in the poem. The poet shows how the poor are not in a position to enjoy the luxuries and happiness of life in this world. Their poverty proves an obstacle in the path of their progress. But this poverty is a blessing in disguise. If it does not allow people to rise higher, it also restrains them from doing evil, by limiting their power to do so. The rich, on the other hand, possess the power and means to do good to themselves and the world. But they also have powers to commit mischief and bring destruction on innocent people. The poem also deals with the desire for fame, the desire to be remembered after death. This theme is treated along with other themes in the poem. The poet shows how even the poor rustics try to perpetuate their memory through inscriptions on some 'frail memorial' decked with 'uncouth rhymes' and 'shapeless sculpture'. Despite the dominance of the theme of death, the Elegy also presents a nostalgic longing for life. It shows how no man dies without casting one longing lingering look behind. A desire for sympathy and for being remembered after death is present in the poem. Thus the Elegy deals with a number of themes. These themes may not be original but Gray's manner of treating them has lent a force and urgency to them.
Critical Summary of the Poem
The Elegy is a poem consisting of 128 lines divided into 32 quatrains including three stanzas devoted to the epitaph. Each quatrain is self contained and usually conveys a complete sense. The movement of thought from one stanza to another takes place in a smooth manner. The structure of the whole poem is skillfully organised and gives the impression of a carefully designed edifice.
The first stanza (lines 1-4) presents a beautiful picture of the natural scene in the evening, and sets the tone and atmosphere of the poem. The day is over and the cattle are moving slowly after the day's toil. The ploughmen, fatigued after the day's toil, are returning home. The poet/speaker is left alone engulfed in darkness like the rest of the world.
All this description is highly pictorial in manner and conjures up beautifully the gloomy atmosphere of the evening. Perhaps, the poet aims at preparing the readers to read about his gloomy and pensive thoughts. Graham Hough remarks "Gray is here far less concerned with nature as an object of contemplation than with the readers -- the readers whom he wishes to lull into a resigned, acquiescent, summer evening frame of mind."
Stanza 11 and 111 continue the description of the calm and quiet atmosphere of the evening. While the darkness slowly descends on earth, 'the glimmering landscape' fades, and the atmosphere is calm and still. This calm and stillness is disturbed only by the noise made by the wheeling beetle and the tinkling of the drowsy cattle in the 'distant fold'. The breaking of the silence of the evening is also caused by the 'moping owl' from the 'ivy mantled' tower, who complains to the moon about the solitary traveler who has...
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