There is an interesting article I have linked, in the Guardian, poem of the week (some long time ago now) by Carol Rumen on ‘Gray’s Elegy’. She offers a link to the complete poem but includes the first fifteen verses and brief analysis on those and further. Carol Rumen’s page is a site well worth visiting for interesting thoughts on poetry far and wide…..
The first verse or two of ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’ may well be the ones that today’s older generation recall from memory though I suspect many will recall having read the verses rather than memorising them. Having said that you only have to read the first two verses a few times and the repetitive rhythm and rhyme-scheme which is natural heart-beat to us, combined with the descriptive alliteration throughout lends itself to memory. Even today.
Here the hesitation creeps in because poetry today is not what it used to be! A bit like nostalgia, if you will forgive the aside. In her article Carol bemoans the fact that the educational system of today no longer caters for ‘impoverished young Miltons and Hampdens’ and worries for their literacy in current financial predicaments for students and the school curriculum. A short paragraph that highlights a failing in the system for poetry, maybe literature, even literacy but to focus on the specifics of poetry, it does not consider that the bulk of poetry gets ever larger as years go by. The language and styles of poetry have exploded, maybe not exponentially but massively, since the death of Queen Victoria. The movements from the Americas and the changes in writing style of people crossing the period into the First World War such as ‘the Georgians’ and T S Eliot and numerous others of the period, some of whom, like Edward Thomas produced good poetry but had short productive (poetic) lives. Life -style was changing as industry and technology was changing, all in mod and speed.
Today, language and rhythms from around the world are part of everyday life…and therefore poetry. So, my point is that though we may all sadden at the loss of poetry (literature) in schools in general, what could be described as relevant literature is now so wide open to discussion across time and distance, now almost removed by technology, that it is inevitable some once-revered lines should be cut. Relevance and connectivity with the audience of today is where the excitement should be created. A student of poetry, like any artist, will always find their way to the past in order to re-invent the future. So much to talk about, so little time! I suspect Carol knows all of this and much more and has taken a brief line to make a single point and I have simplisticly taken the bait!
Back to Gray’s Elegy:
This was a hugely successful publication when first published, many editions rushed out as its fame spread. A great poem of the day but Thomas Gray never published much more than a thousand lines of poetry in total.
I never learned the poem by heart, have probably not read many more than the listed stanzas. I have, however, visited the memorial put up by John Penn to the memory of Thomas Gray and the hugely successful publication of the ‘elegy’. As children we used to walk as a family group to the memorial every Easter Sunday, weather permitting, and a few other times too! The reason why was never given, the question why never asked. I suspect is was just a nice walk but may have misadvertantly planted that early germ of mystery about poets and poetry. Recently, in the interest of soothing old imaginings, I have been back several times and being in the close vicinity of the memorial has been interesting. The same memory is there. The grass surround, the ha-ha and the field with the tree standing magnificently defiant in the meadow. Get the position right and it’s branches seem to give a green canopy over the sarcophagus shaped memorial.
Reading around the subject leads to the suggestion that most of the poem was written when Gray was at Cambridge though the quiet inspiration no doubt flowed from his frequent visits as he lived close by. The solitude of this place with view of trees and hedge at edge of the now extended churchyard can still be felt and easily imagined if you just filter your mind back over two hundred years. This is as a lone visitor today. If the small car-park across the road is full then that quiet spot may well be lost to snap and chatter of enthusiasts. The monument itself must be several hundred yards from the church and out of sight of most, except for the odd farm-hand. All so quiet in late 18th century English countryside.
The small copse of trees backdropping the monument and its part-surrounding ha-ha have been owned by the National Trust for some years. In 2014 the copse is due to be planted with wild flowers and the ha-ha highlighted and reconstructed where needed.
A photo to the west, to include the church did not work. It was too far away and only the roof-ridge and top of tower were visible. The bare tree looks too bleak. In summer the foliage create a nice ‘mantle’ for the monument.
The small church of St Giles’ is worth a visit and you can pass Gray’s tomb and that of his mother and her sister. The side chapel was renovated last century and the bells moved by John Penn’s suggestion and money. However, the plate above shows monument with church in view, with a small spire. There is none. Look at plate here for more accuracy. There is enough ivy for all! The figure sitting with back to the church wall may be a reader of the poem rather than Gray writing it as two tombs are clearly visibly. You choose! Gray’s churchyard is very pleasant and worth a visit.
I have not read that a spire ecer existed. Note above, that the bells were moved by John Penn’s suggestion and money, hence the roofing to the tower as seen in the photograph.
Which neatly leads me to that tolling bell and ivy-mantled tower: The plate offers all the ivy you may need but it is more than likely that the sound and site in mind at the time of writing was actually the Church of St. Laurence in Upton-cum-Chalvey, some six miles away. This bell tolling nightly curfew across the fields to Eton College. Possibly heard from St. Giles but more likely just from his time at Eton. The tombs by the church wall, sadly, are not very eloquent today and as several photos are included I decided against them at this time. Quiet reflection brought together ideal elements for Gray and the poem stands for itself. It is interesting to read and see the influences on any ‘art’ but it is still the ‘artist’ that fuses the idea into substance.
St. Laurence is another delightful little church. It fell into serious dereliction and was saved from collapse in 1850 and rebuilt and re-dedicated in 1851. It had been a wooden sided Parish church built on elements of a Norman church, some of which can be seen. Today the tower is not ivy- clad but the church and churchyard sit in a quiet corner a little away from the now Parish church of St Mary’s, Slough.
Sir William Herschel and wife are buried in a vault near the tower.
I have wandered away from the poem, have not quoted nor analysed but hope I have added a tiny bit of colour and place of today. Look back at the illustration of the church and see and think of the solitary reader, and enjoy.