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.
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 Hades 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
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
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,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..."
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
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.