The Pastoral Ideal in Thomas Gray's Elegy (Eulogy) Written in a Country Churchyard

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The Pastoral Ideal in Thomas Gray's Elegy (Eulogy) Written in a Country Churchyard

Thomas Gray’s "Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard" portrays the pastoral ideal through many different images. The traditional pastoral notion of idyllic life changes in this poem to form a connection with people themselves. The speaker of this poem creates a process by which laborers come to symbolize the perfection of the pastoral through their daily toils. These people come to represent the ideal form of pastoral life. In this poem, however, Gray consigns these people and their lifestyle to darkness and death in order to save them from a world whose changing ideals support their idyllic lifestyle.

This poem can be broken into four parts. These parts describe a kind of conversation between the speaker and the fading light of the traditional pastoral notion. The first part, ending around line 28, shows the ways in which the working people have integrated successfully into the pastoral lifestyle. The second, and longest part, ending around line 73, paints a portrait of an "urbanized pastoral" where people are no longer ignorant of their own potential, but strive to make changes in the world around them. Though this in itself is not necessarily negative, by desiring to change the world, the pastoral ideal of static bliss is directly challenged. The third section gives a kind of resolution to the situation by letting the pastoral tradition slide, safe and unmarred, into the comforting darkness of death.

The opening stanza paints a portrait of the end of a day. The herds of farm animals walk away from the speaker to their home, just as a weary farmer "plods" (3) his way back home. All of these figures recede from the speaker into the appr...

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... poet could the pastoral be kept alive. The speaker deals with this concept throughout "Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard." The "darkness" which is alluded to in the first stanza is the place the world has left the pastoral. As "The Plow-man homeward plods his weary Way," (3) he leaves behind the realm of the pastoral for the speaker to deal with. As society begins to turn its back from fanciful simplicity, towards commercial complexity, the poet’s duty falls to creating a place where the world of the pastoral is safe. For Gray, this is the darkness of death. This poem, however, does not create this "darkness" of death as an everlasting sleep. Rather, the importance of the pastoral is kept safe, and has the ability to influence generations of socially-influenced people that there is a world of peace and simplicity awaiting them, if they choose to look for it.
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