Born in London in 1716, he was educated first at Eton and then at Cambridge where he became Professor of Modern History. He died in 1771. He is the most typical representative of the transition between Neo-Classicism and Romanticism in England. In fact he was fundamentally a classicist but he was the first to show a real interest in the life of humble people. This may be seen in his Elegy written in a country churchyard, a funeral elegy which anticipated the Romantic cult of melancholy and death and has an enormous influence on European writers.
Elegy written in a country Churchyard: Focus on the text
This is one of the best known and loved poems and it had an immediate success when it was first published. It is a perfect fusion of meditative feelings and classical style: in fact the language and the form of the elegy belong to the neo-classical tradition. The poem is divided into four-line stanzas (called heroic stanza) made up of regular iambic pentameters. Moreover we find a romantic sensibility. This is shown in the unclassical setting of the elegy: a rural and poor country cemetery. In this funeral elegy which anticipated the romantic cult of melancholy and death , Gray shows an interest in the life of humble people and village craftsmen. These poor, insignificant people who lie in the churchyard are in death equal to the most famous men of all times: death comes to all men. The contemplation of this churchyard at twilight leads the poet on the reflection that worldly ambition and success are vain illusions. The poem ends with the epitaph on the tomb of the poet himself.
Thomas Gray (1716 - 1771)
This poem can be divided into three moments. Stanzas 1 - 11: in a small country churchyard in Stoke Poges, at the end of the day, the sight of the tombs of the "rude forefathers of the hamlet" calls up in the poet's mind images of humble country life. These images, rich in symboilc elements, lead Gray to meditate on death and on its levelling power. Stanzas 12 - 21: Gray compares the humble lot of poor people with the great careers from which their fate excluded them. But he also considers how their poverty also prevented them from committing crimes and falling victims of luxury, pride and corruption. Stanzas 22 - 32: the poem ends with the supposed death of the author, his burial in the same churchyard and the epitaph on his tomb.
Comment: the neoclassical idealization of poor country life conceals the denunciation of what poverty means in term of hardship and unfulfilment so that the "rude forefathers" come to be seen in the double role of both happy people and victims of nature and society.
The sepolcal poetry became very popular in Italy, where it inspired, among other works, Foscolo's Sepolcri. But Foscolo, unlike Gray, concentrated on the function of the grave as a link between the living and the dead. Foscolo in fact believed in life continuing after death through the memories of the living.