An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard

Warning: This is a long poem, but one of the most famous of the eighteenth century. The importance of this poem and the reason for choosing it is in the comments below.

An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard

By Thomas Gray

The Curfeu tolls the Knell of parting Day,
The lowing Herd wind slowly o’er the Lea,
The Plow-man homeward plods his weary Way,
And leaves the World to Darkness, and to me.

Now fades the glimmering 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’r
The mopeing Owl does to the Moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her sacred 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.

The breezy Call of Incense-breathing Morn,
The Swallow twitt’ring from the Straw-built Shed,
The Cock’s shrill Clarion, or the echoing Horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly Bed.

For them no more the blazing Hearth shall burn,
Or busy Houswife ply her Evening Care:
No Children run to lisp their Sire’s Return,
Or climb his Knees the envied Kiss to share.

Oft did the Harvest to their Sickle yield,
Their Furrow oft the stubborn Glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their Team afield!
How bow’d the Woods beneath their sturdy Stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful Toil,
Their homely Joys, and Destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful Smile,
The short and simple Annals of the Poor.

The Boast of Heraldry, the Pomp of Pow’r,
And all that Beauty, all that Wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable Hour.
The Paths of Glory lead but to the Grave.

Forgive, ye proud, th’ involuntary Fault,
If Memory to these no Trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn Isle and fretted Vault
The pealing Anthem swells the Note of Praise.

Can storied Urn or animated Bust
Back to its Mansion call the fleeting Breath?
Can Honour’s Voice provoke the silent Dust,
Or Flatt’ry sooth the dull cold Ear of Death!

Perhaps in this neglected Spot is laid
Some Heart once pregnant with celestial Fire,
Hands that the rod of Empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to Extacy the living Lyre.

But Knowledge to their Eyes her ample Page
Rich with the Spoils of Time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble Rage,
And froze the genial Current of the Soul.

Full many a Gem of purest Ray serene
The dark unfathom’d Caves of Ocean bear:
Full many a Flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its Sweetness on the desart Air.

Some Village-Hampden, that with dauntless Breast
The little Tyrant of his Fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his Country’s Blood.

Th’ Applause of list’ning Senates to command,
The Threats of Pain and Ruin to despise,
To scatter Plenty o’er a smiling Land,
And read their Hist’ry in a Nation’s Eyes,

Their Lot forbad: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing Virtues, but their Crimes confin’d;
Forbad to wade through Slaughter to a Throne,
And shut the Gates of Mercy on Mankind;

The struggling Pangs of conscious Truth to hide,
To quench the Blushes of ingenuous Shame,
Or heap the Shrine of Luxury and Pride
With Incense, kindled at the Muse’s Flame.

Far from the madding Crowd’s ignoble Strife,
Their sober Wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d Vale of Life
They kept the noiseless Tenor of their Way.

Yet ev’n these Bones from Insult to protect
Some frail Memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth Rhimes and shapeless Sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing Tribute of a Sigh.

Their Name, their Years, spelt by th’ unletter’d Muse,
The Place of fame and Elegy supply:
And many a holy Text around she strews,
That teach the rustic Moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious Being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm Precincts of the chearful Day,
Nor cast one longing ling’ring look behind!

On some fond Breast the parting Soul relies,
Some pious Drops the closing Eye requires;
Even from the Tomb the Voice of Nature cries
Awake, and faithful to her wonted Fires.

For thee, who, mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead,
Dost in these lines their artless Tale relate;
If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,
Some hidden Spirit shall inquire thy Fate,

Haply some hoary-headed Swain may say,
“Oft have we seen him at the Peep of Dawn
Brushing with hasty Steps the Dews away
To meet the Sun upon the upland Lawn.

“There at the Foot of yonder nodding Beech
That wreathes its old fantastic Roots so high,
His listless Length at Noontide wou’d he stretch,
And pore upon the Brook that babbles by.

“Hard by yon Wood, now smiling as in Scorn,
Mutt’ring his wayward Fancies he wou’d rove;
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with Care, or cross’d in hopeless Love.

“One Morn I miss’d him on the custom’d Hill,
Along the Heath and near his fav’rite Tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the Rill,
Nor up the Lawn, nor at the Wood was he.

“The next with Dirges due in sad Array,
Slow thro’ the Church-way Path we saw him born.
Approach and read (for thou can’st read) the Lay,
Grav’d on the Stone, beneath yon aged Thorn.”

Here rests his Head upon the Lap of Earth
A Youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown:
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble Birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

Large was his Bounty, and his Soul sincere,
Heav’n did a Recompence as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a Tear:
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a Friend.

No farther seek his Merits to disclose,
Or draw his Frailties from their dread Abode,
(There they alike in trembling Hope repose)
The Bosom of his Father and his God.

About the Poem

Thomas Gray’s famous poem “An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard” was written in 1750. The poem was composed at a time of change within English poetry when poets were trying to move away from the influence of John Milton and Edmund Spenser. While Gray avoids obvious imitation, there is no mistaking the Spenserian tone of a sober melancholy. The Elegy became the single most popular eighteenth-century poem, endlessly reprinted and eventually memorized by millions of schoolchildren. 

The poem’s origins are unknown, but it is believed to have been partly inspired by Gray’s thoughts following the death of the poet Richard West in 1742. Gray wrote a number of poems to West, expressing his love and his increasing agony over his sexuality. Both men were homosexual in a time when being a “sodomite” carried a possible death sentence if convicted. Critics have said that the depressive quality of the Elegy, which oddly makes it so pleasant to many readers, stems not merely from Gray’s specific grief at the loss of West (the “friend” of the epitaph) some fifteen years earlier, but also from the ongoing suppression of his homosexual identity. The nature of the speaker’s “sensibility” has come under renewed scrutiny, as several critics have argued that the term was virtually code for “homosexuality” at this time, and that the Elegy’s speaker finds in the unrealized potential of the dead a parallel for his own homosexual desires.

I chose this poem today because I have been reading Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King by Thomas J. Balcerski. The book looks at the friendship of the bachelor politicians James Buchanan (1791-1868) of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King (1786-1853) of Alabama which has excited much speculation through the years. Why did neither marry? Were they gay? Or was their relationship a very intimate, but not a romantic friendship. I am only about a third of the way through the book, but the life of King definitely seems suspicious.

King was one of the founders of Selma, Alabama, the state’s first U.S. Senator, and Vice President of the United States in 1853, a position he held for only 45 days. He is the only Vice President to take the oath of office outside of the United States and to never serve as Vice President in Washington. King was ill with tuberculosis and had traveled to Cuba in an effort to regain his health. Because of this, he was unable to make it back to Washington for the inauguration. Shortly after taking the oath of office, he returned to his home near Selma, where he died before returning to Washington to assume the vice presidency.

Like the poet Thomas Gray, King never married. Neither even seems to have formed any meaningful attachments to women. King always said that he had loved but once and could never love again. The story goes that in 1816, he became the Secretary of the Legation for William Pinkney during Pinkney’s appointment as Minister to Russia and special diplomatic mission in Naples. While at the Court of St. Petersburg, King claimed that when he set his eyes on the future Czarina Maria Feodorovna, he instantly fell in love and almost committed a diplomatic faux pas when, as the King family tradition has it, he passionately kissed the hand of the future czarina, a risky move that could have landed him in serious jeopardy. This instance is the only time he admitted to having any romantic feelings for a woman, and it occurred halfway around the world where no one could confirm or deny the story. He would often relate this story when his bachelorhood was questioned.

King and Buchanan lived together for a number of years but separated when King became the U.S. Minister to France. King wrote Buchanan from Paris: “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation. For myself, I shall feel lonely in the midst of Paris, for here I shall have no Friend with whom I shall commune as with my own thoughts.”

Around the same time, Buchanan wrote a letter to a friend complaining about being alone and not being able to find the right gentleman partner:

“I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

While Buchanan at times did try to find a wife, it appears that King never did. King was known to be one of the most fashionable and handsome men in Washington. He was also known to be very fastidious in his appearance. King was a lover of literature and often quoted poetry in his letters. In one such letter, he quoted the poem above. Being well versed in literature, King was likely to have known the same-sex desires alluded to in Gray’s “An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard.” Rumors have circulated for nearly two hundred years that William Rufus King was gay, and I suspect there is some truth to the rumors. Buchanan on the other hand may have been bisexual, or he simply pursued women to further his political aspirations. However, both men were politicians in a Washington that had few women and bachelorhood was seen as an advantage because a man did not have a family to worry about at home. It was not until Andrew Jackson’s presidency that women began to come with their husbands to Washington and create an exclusive social atmosphere for the women of Washington’s political elite, an event that took many years to come to fruition.

Whether King and Buchanan were lovers or merely very intimate friends, they certainly turned heads at the time and fostered a great deal of speculation. Much of their letters to one another were destroyed by family members; however, the length and intimacy of the surviving letters illustrate the affection of a special friendship between King and Buchanan, with no way to know for certain whether it was a romantic relationship.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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