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An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard (1751) and The Eton College Manuscript   By: (1716-1771)

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First Page:

The Augustan Reprint Society


An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard



The Eton College Manuscript

With an Introduction by

George Sherburn

Publication Number 31

Los Angeles Williams Andrews Clark Memorial Library University of California 1951


H. RICHARD ARCHER, Clark Memorial Library RICHARD C. BOYS, University of Michigan JOHN LOFTIS, University of California, Los Angeles


W. EARL BRITTON, University of Michigan


EMMETT L. AVERY, State College of Washington BENJAMIN BOYCE, Duke University LOUIS I. BREDVOLD, University of Michigan CLEANTH BROOKS, Yale University JAMES L. CLIFFORD, Columbia University ARTHUR FRIEDMAN, University of Chicago EDWARD NILES HOOKER, University of California, Los Angeles LOUIS A. LANDA, Princeton University SAMUEL H. MONK, University of Minnesota ERNEST MOSSNER, University of Texas JAMES SUTHERLAND, University College, London H.T. SWEDENBERG, JR., University of California, Los Angeles


To some the eighteenth century definition of proper poetic matter is unacceptable; but to any who believe that true poetry may (if not "must") consist in "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed," Gray's "Churchyard" is a majestic achievement perhaps (accepting the definition offered) the supreme achievement of its century. Its success, so the great critic of its day thought, lay in its appeal to "the common reader"; and though no friend of Gray's other work, Dr. Johnson went on to commend the "Elegy" as abounding "with images which find a mirrour in every mind and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo." Universality, clarity, incisive lapidary diction these qualities may be somewhat staled in praise of the "classical" style, yet it is precisely in these traits that the "Elegy" proves most nobly. The artificial figures of rhetorical arrangement that are so omnipresent in the antitheses, chiasmuses, parallelisms, etc., of Pope and his school are in Gray's best quatrains unobtrusive or even infrequent.

Often in the art of the period an affectation of simplicity covers and reveals by turns a great thirst for ingenuity. Swift's prose is a fair example; in the "Tale of a Tub" and even in "Gulliver" at first sight there seems to appear only an honest and simple directness; but pry beneath the surface statements, or allow yourself to be dazzled by their coruscations of meaning, and you immediately see you are watching a stylistic prestidigitator. The later, more orderly dignity of Dr. Johnson's exquisitely chosen diction is likewise ingeniously studied and self conscious. When Gray soared into the somewhat turgid pindaric tradition of his day, he too was slaking a thirst for rhetorical complexities. But in the "Elegy" we have none of that. Nor do we have artifices like the "chaste Eve" or the "meek eyed maiden" apostrophized in Collins and Joseph Warton. For Gray the hour when the sky turns from opal to dusk leaves one not "breathless with adoration," but moved calmly to placid reflection tuned to drowsy tinklings or to a moping owl. It endures no contortions of image or of verse. It registers the sensations of the hour and the reflections appropriate to it simply.

It is not difficult to be clear so we are told by some who habitually fail of that quality if you have nothing subtle to say. And it has been urged on high authority in our day that there is nothing really "fine" in Gray's "Churchyard." However conscious Gray was in limiting his address to "the common reader," we may be certain he was not writing to the obtuse, the illiterate or the insensitive. He was to create an evocation of evening: the evening of a day and the approaching night of life. The poem was not to be perplexed by doubt; it ends on a note of "trembling hope" but on "hope... Continue reading book >>

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