On Feb. 16, 1751, the English poet Thomas Gray published "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." You may wonder why I mention this anniversary, especially if you've never heard of Gray or his poem. Maybe you figure it's the sort of thing only crotchety old literature professors remember.
Yet the Elegy was once the most popular poem in the English language. Not only was it a triumph in its own time, but for 200 years it continued to be admired and loved. Throughout the English-speaking world, it was known as "our poem of poems."
The poem seemed to speak eloquently to many occasions. Samuel Johnson said it abounded "with images which find a mirror in every mind," with sentiments that each reader "persuades himself he has always felt." A century later, Alfred Lord Tennyson praised its "divine truisms that make us weep." Before fighting the decisive Battle of Quebec in 1759, British Gen. James Wolfe recited Gray's Elegy to his officers.
The poem begins with a meditative mood, as the poet wanders at dusk through a churchyard cemetery. He finds there the democracy of death. The rich and the poor, the celebrated and the obscure, share the same fate. Gray concludes that class distinctions among the living are of little importance in the greater scheme of things.
Gray's masterpiece has been imitated and illustrated, parodied and paraphrased, analyzed and anthologized. It has been translated into Armenian, Hebrew, Icelandic and Japanese. Generations of schoolchildren learned stanzas by heart. People quoted from it as they lay dying.
How is it that a poem once so famous is almost forgotten? Why is Gray's Elegy as neglected as those neglected graves about which he wrote so poignantly?
I could suggest that poetry in general is no longer popular. But that's not quite true. Millions listen to song and rap lyrics, although they might stop if they thought of them as poetry. Perhaps we don't read the Elegy because it is stately and slow-paced. Its calm, melancholic tone must seem alien to those addicted to MTV, Sega Genesis, THX sound.
Maybe it's the language that is off-putting. Gray created a heightened diction based in part on classical poetry. Today, formality and artifice strike many as insincere, as though something that's not colloquial is necessarily suspect. We're still suffering under an ersatz Romanticism that gives value to the spontaneous and devalues the polished and restrained.
Yet I don't think language is the whole answer. After all, there are phrases from Gray's poem that are part of our common vocabulary--even if they have drifted from their moorings and we know them only out of context. There are many "gems of purest ray serene" that, half unseen, still sparkle on the stretched forefinger of Time. When Thomas Hardy called his novel "Far From the Madding Crowd," he was sure that his audience would hear the echo of Gray's line, "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife." To some, "paths of glory" may be just a cliche or the title of Stanley Kubrick's superb 1957 film (starring Kirk Douglas) about World War I. It was, however, Gray who wrote, "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." If you don't know the full line, you miss the point of Kubrick's title. The words and even the rhythms of this remarkable poem resonated through the minds of 20th-Century poets T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke and Philip Larkin as they pursued their own elegiac journeys. If we forget the Elegy, we also drain meaning from the works influenced by it. Allusion cannot function in a culture that has no memory.
Gray himself was inclined to attribute the success of his poem to its subject. Maybe we can trace its current lack of success to the same source. The Elegy is about death and how individuals and societies both must come to terms with the "inevitable hour." Our society often tries to ignore, or sweep into an anonymous corner, what Gray embraced as part of everyday life. Those buried in Gray's churchyard have been forgotten. We too run risks when we forget the dead--and perhaps even when we let old poems die.