He was the greatest poet of the Transition period. He combined the main features of both groups: the elegiac and the graveyard poet’s group and the sensibility and awareness of nature’s group. He made a bridge between the old classical traditions and the new pre-romantic values. Gray was very slow at writing his poems.
The best-known and most popular of his works is Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which took him seven years and was probably inspired by the death of his friend Richard West. The poem can be divided into three”moments”:
1) Stanzas 1-11: in a small country churchyard, at the end of the day, the sight of the tombs called up in the poet’s mind images humble country life. These images, rich in symbolic elements, led Gray to meditate on death and its levelling power;
2) Stanzas 12-20: Gray compared the lot poor people with the great careers. But he also considered how their poverty also prevented them from committing crimes and felling victims to luxury, pride and corruption. Here there is a contrast between the simple funerals of the poor and the pompous exequies of the great;
1) use of abstract personification;
2) universality of themes;
3) idyllic view of country life;
4)excessive time required to polish each stanza;
5)influences of poetic classic such as Dante and Lucretius.
Early Romantic elements:
1) setting: a country churchyard;
2) time of day: twilight;
3) theme: death;
4) interest in and sympathy for poor, humble people;
5) nature seen as a reality made up of earth, trees and animals.
The Elegy became very popular in Italy where it inspired Foscolo’s I Sepolcri. But Foscolo concentrated on the function of the grave as a link between the living and the dead, as symbol of glory and a source of poetry and inspiration. This is why he went on to exalt the importance of great men’s tombs in Santa Croce and their power of exciting a spirit of emulation in posterity. Foscolo in fact believed in a life that continued after death through the memories of the living, while Gray lamented the hopeless transience of man and things.