analyse the Epitaph of Gray's Elegy: describe its form, comment on the
diction, summarize its point. (So very gentlemanesque to say
The epitaph consists of quatrains with lines of ten syllables and therefore follows the previous quatrains of the Elegy. This calls vivid memories of the heroic couplet to mind, as this type of quatrain is also known as the heroic quatrain. This heroic quatrain consists of the earlier mentioned ten syllables and within the four lines themselves usually adopts a abab rhyme scheme. Which is obviously what ‘The Epitaph’ (and the rest of the Elegy) does. By adopting this form, The Epitaph flows from the Elegy itself. Additionally, both Elegy and Epitaph are written in the iambic (unstressed, stressed) meter, as the following lines (120-123) of the Epitaph show.
Here rests his head up on the lap of Earth
- / - / - / - / - /
A Youth to For tune and to Fame un known
- / - / - / - / - /
Fair Scie nce frown’d not on his hum ble birth
- / - / - / - / - /
One of the main issues of Gray’s diction was his rather complex and artificial phraseology. As Gray himself wrote to his beloved friend West: “As a matter of stile, I have this to say: The language of the age is never the language of poetry.” (As cited in Jack, p. 104.)
Gray’s language in his Elegy is therefore not that of “the age”. His vocabulary does not consists of his own neologisms or compositions. It is merely the choice of his words, as Jack puts it in his “Reconsideration” of Gray’s Elegy, are “slightly archaic and poetical”. He exemplifies his point with words such as jocund, oft and yonder. Most nouns and verbs are every day words and the difference of Gray’s diction lies in his usage of words, not the words themselves.
Nowadays however, most of his intricate combinations have reached the status of real proverbials. Although great, these certain combinations of words have become such well-known and widely used proverbials that a mere mortal does not spot the ‘proverbialness’ within a poem properly – or in this case, an epitaph. For example, the words “to fortune and fame unknown” reminded me of the musical Aïda, which on its own shows how proverbial it is.
The Epitaph itself is obviously different from the previous stanzas of the Elegy, something debated by various scholars. Some attribute the different voice of the Epitaph (and a few preceding lines) to Gray, others to the “kindred spirit” itself.
The gentle melancholy of the mood, as well as the syntax of stanzas 24 and 25, points to Gray himself as the subject of the “Epitaph”. It expresses a wish which, in this particular mood, he has for his whole future: to be “marked out” for melancholy for her own, to live and die in peaceful rustic security. (Dyson, p. 83)
The latter sentence refers to “And Melancholy mark’d him for her own” (l. 120) from The Epitaph. Dyson suggests that Gray, infatuated with his own melancholy is just ‘taken away’ to the path of death. On the hand of Melancholy herself, of course.
The [Epitaph] supplies a “kindred spirit” seeking out the withdrawn poet and finding his “frail memorial” in the Epitaph which ends the poem, and which “implores the passive tribute of a sigh”. Thus the passion not to be forgotten is satisfied in imagination. (Johnston, p. 38)
Johnston distinctly differs from Dyson. He does not regard Gray as much as the voice of the epitaph. The “kindred spirit” is the one that seeks out the “withdrawn poet”. This poet is satisfied by the presence of this spirit in his imaginary death and epitaph.
The change of the voice complicates a proper interpretation of The Epitaph itself. It cannot be viewed on its own, as it is part of the larger whole of the Elegy.
However, it is clear the theme of the Epitaph has ‘something’ to do with death. It deals with the stage of death and how to be remembered afterwards. The latter is of course the function of an epitaph on its own.
Death is but a period during which life can be remembered by others who are not dead. It does not matter whether one is a highly successful and celebrated poet or a poor young man “to fortune and fame unknown”. When you are dead, there is not much (read: nothing) there can be done. Plus, a dead poet does not die more happily than a ‘meaningless’ young man. In the eyes of death, every man (and creature) is equal – they are dead.
In turning the ending of his poem towards the universal passion to be remembered Gray is aware that memory of the dead is an emotion experienced by someone outside. (Johnston, p. 39)
Johnston also adds that “the end of the poem presents the musing figure from outside as he imagines and as he hopes he will be remembered. He enjoyes the remembrance in anticipation.” This final remark is something that makes the Epitaph (and the complete Elegy) into something universal. Or, “the universal passion to be remembered”, as Johnston puts it beautifully. It is true of course, that nobody wishes to pass away without leaving his or her mark on the world. What point is there in living if nobody will remember your accomplishments?
The “anticipated remembrance” Johnston mentioned also touches the tip of another iceberg. Consider me strange if I happen to be the only individual who sometimes imagines her death and which people would be affected by it. Gray does not think so, for this is – in my humble opinion - the remembrance the “musing figure” anticipates. The tone of melancholy that is intertwined with the complete Elegy supports this vision.
All are characteristics [which the swain displays] associated with melancholia, and the swain naturally conjectures from the behaviour two possible causes for it – excessive sorrow or unrequited love. (Johnston, p. 39)
Excessive sorrow and/ or unrequited love does make one think such melancholy thoughts about deaths, burials and epitaphs.
Furthermore, the Epitaph itself is not constructed without implications.
In the final stanzas he [Gray, who Dyson considers the voice of the Elegy] identifies himself with the rustics and dies to ambition and self-fulfilment with them, but here the ambivalence of the emotional response is especially to be felt. “A youth to fortune and to fame unknown” invites our pity; his simple contentment,
He gained from Heaven ('twas all he wish'd) a friend
calls for acquiescene. (Dyson, p. 86)
Both pity and satisfaction speak from the words on the Epitaph. The melancholy self-pitying “youth to fortune and fame unknown / [...] his humble birth / And Melancholy marked him for her own” versus the “simple contentment” as mentioned by Dyson as suggested by the “all he wish’d [...] friend”.
In the end, the Epitaph does show its creator knows how “they alike in trembling hope repose”, and therefore how all pity and satisfaction will fade in death.
Adapting Johnston’s (p. 40) words freely: it is more than logical for a piece of poetry featuring someone contemplating thoughts inspired by gravestones to be concluded with an imaginary epitaph of the person indulging in these thoughts. It is not the ‘clue’ of the whole Elegy, but a suitable ending which enables the reader to start contemplating the matter for him- or herself.
I could not resist writing my own heroic quartet with a non-iambic pentameter and an abab rhyme. It would look pretty impressive on a gravestone. Pity I do not wish to be buried. Ah, well, it will do just fine as an obituary.
Mutt’ring with great incapability,
“Just have I obtain’d such a cunning plan,”
The drive behind her sleep hostility,
She pass’d ‘way aspiring to land a man.
If, one unfortunate day one of my beloved kitties would meet an untimely end (and if I would be mad and rich enough to purchase them a real burial site), I would honour them by a few lines from “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat”. Ever since it was a feature in the corpus of Academic Reading it has been one of my favourites. (One of those mad hatter cat ladies, indeed.)
Plus, I stumbled upon this nifty little illustration of how Gray’s Elegy was actually written. It does offer an entirely different perspective on the matter.
“The plowman homewards plods his weary way,” (line 3).
Dyson, A. E. “The Ambivalence of Gray’s Elegy.” In: Twentieth Century Interpretations if Gray’s Elegy. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Gray, Thomas. Elegy written in a Country Church-Yard. In: Selected Poems of Thomas Gray and Williams Collins. London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., 1967. p. 38-50.
Jack, Ian. “Gray’s Elegy Reconsidered.” In: Twentieth Century Interpretations if Gray’s Elegy. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.
Johnston, Arthur. Selected Poems of Thomas Gray and Williams Collins. London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., 1967. p. 38-50.
1. How would you rate the overall quality of the course?
5 - high.
2. Were your initial knowledge & skills adequate to allow you to take the course?
4 – quite adequate enough.
3. How would you rate the content of the course & the materials used?
4 – quite high. Most of the literature and poetry was great. I personally would totally give Walpole a well-deserved 10.
5. How many classes did you cut?
3 – I suppose. How much I enjoy literature, my bed and I have an even better relationship. Especially on the wintery cold mornings. So it’s not you, it’s me.
6. How would you rate my teaching talents?
4 – very quite high. Especially when citing complete poetic songs.
7. Was the content of the course reflected in the testing methods?
4 – very much so. Even though the assignments seem specific and small, it does make you read things and think deep thoughts. After submitting an assignment, I will never forget the mentioned literature or the form of the heroic couplet.
8. Please comments on the course’s strengths and/or any weaknesses?
I personally love and adore the small-scaled written assignments. But in the light of naughty students, perhaps a bit more correlation between the lectures and the assignments would do no harm. And yes, a break would be nice.
Plus, a very valuable suggestion: change the assignments for next year. If I understand correctly, they were used the previous year as well. So it would be a nice change of assignment scenery. I would not enjoy grading the same papers year after year. And assignments circulate quickly within the studentdom. (And I will make mine open to the public, so it shall all be only one google click away.)