Country Churchyard

In Brief

Typically, Bloom gets a couple of things wrong when he thinks, "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 title, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," perfectly suits Gray's intent: a eulogy is a praise of someone who has died, while an elegy is a more general meditative lament for the dead. Still, it speaks well of a man with a high-school education that he knows this deservedly famous poem, and some of its thoughts chime with the ones Bloom has in his own, more urban graveyard.

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Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), a Scottish poet, and William Wordsworth (1770-1850) were born two generations after Gray (1716-1771). But anyone could be forgiven for supposing that Wordsworth wrote the "Elegy." Although it predated the Lyrical Ballads 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 darkness falls on a bucolic landscape, Gray's speaker 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, Gray 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. "Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife," they "kept the noiseless tenor of their way." But, like all human beings, they valued their lives, felt connected to others who loved them, and longed to be remembered. 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 forgotten man, and his reflections just before he thinks of Gray's poem 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 faintly 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."

JH 2019
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.