Country Churchyard

Country Churchyard

In Brief

A famous poem from the middle of the 18th century, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, surfaces in characters' thoughts three times in Ulysses. Bloom thinks of it in Hades in his typical fumbling way, getting both the title and the author slightly wrong, but his thoughts suggest some appreciation of the poem's content. In Eumaeus he alludes less astutely to one of the elegy's best-known lines, and in Cyclops John Wyse Nolan too recites one of the poem's lines.

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Walking through the Glasnevin cemetery and thinking of all the Dubliners who have passed on, Bloom recalls this meditative lyric that does the same thing: "Eulogy in a country churchyard it ought to be that poem of whose is it Wordsworth or Thomas Campbell." The poem was written by Thomas Gray, and its actual title better suits its intent: a eulogy is a praise of someone who has died, while an elegy is a more general meditative lament for the dead. But Bloom seems to know that his title is wrong ("it ought to be"), and his guesses about the author show some literary discernment. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Scotsman Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) were born two or three generations after Gray (1716-1771), but anyone could be forgiven for supposing that Wordsworth wrote the "Elegy." Although it predated the Lyrical Ballads (1799) by nearly half a century, Gray's 1751 poem strongly anticipated the Romantic poet's reverential wanderings in nature and his democratizing interest in ordinary men and women. As for Campbell, earlier in HadesĀ Bloom has thought of a line from Lord Ullin's Daughter (1804), a ballad that poignantly grieves a death.

Gray's thoughts chime with things that Bloom thinks in his own, more urban graveyard. As darkness falls on a bucolic landscape, the speaker of the elegy thinks about the people buried beneath the trees in a local churchyard. The fact that no great titles or accomplishments are recorded on their tombstones should not, he thinks, diminish appreciation of their lives:

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.

It is quite possible, the speaker supposes, that "Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, / Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood." These people grew up in rural poverty, deprived of education and paths to social advancement, and their talents never found the way to praise. But like all human beings they valued their lives, felt connected to others, and hoped to be remembered well. The poem memorializing them has been written by a man who shares their obscure condition, "A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown."

Bloom too is a negligible man, and his reflections just before he thinks of Gray's elegy show a similar concern with the hidden lives of ordinary people. As Joe Hynes and Jack Power wander off to revere the great Parnell, he looks around at all the lesser graves surmounted by icons of religious hope and thinks how poorly they represent the lives that have ended: "Pray for the repose of the soul of. Does anybody really? Plant him and have done with him. Like down a coalshoot." These people wished to live on, and their lives had meaning enough on their own terms: "Who passed away. Who departed this life. As if they did it of their own accord. Got the shove, all of them. Who kicked the bucket. More interesting if they told you what they were. So and So, wheelwright. I travelled for cork lino. I paid five shillings in the pound. Or a woman's with her saucepan. I cooked good Irish stew."

In Eumaeus, Bloom thinks of a quatrain that continues the theme of people not making a mark in the busy world of public advancement:

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.
Thomas Hardy's first big success, Far From the Madding Crowd (1874, with revised editions in 1895 and 1901), maintained Gray's implicit contrast between an apparently idyllic countryside and the bleak struggles of the people who live in it. But Bloom thinks only of how lovely it can be to get away from the city for a few days: "There were equally excellent opportunities for vacationists in the home island, delightful sylvan spots for rejuvenation, offering a plethora of attractions as well as a bracing tonic for the system in and around Dublin and its picturesque environs even, Poulaphouca to which there was a steam tram, but also farther away from the madding crowd in Wicklow, rightly termed the garden of Ireland..."

In Cyclops, as the Citizen heaps abuse on the English while Bloom and J. J. O'Molloy urge moderation, John Wyse Nolan tosses in a line from the Elegy: "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen." He is remembering another of Gray's appreciations of unnoticed people:
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

The purpose of the allusion is not perfectly clear. Most likely Nolan is seconding what the Citizen has just said, that European people take no notice of English people or their langauge: they are as insignificant to the civilized continent as Gray's country people are to urban elites. But it seems conceivable that he could be urging an opinion like those of Bloom and O'Molloy: England has produced some perfectly decent people, but their virtues are obscured by the imperialist warmongers that excite the Citizen's rage.

JH 2021
Richard Bentley's frontispiece for the illustrated 1753 edition of Gray's poem. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
William Blake's 1797-98 pen and watercolor Design 113 for Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, held in the Yale Center for British Art. Source: Wikimedia Commons.