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THOMAS GRAY - Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard



Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

This poem is one of the best known in the language and indicates very clearly the transition in literature from the Classical to the Romantic period. This can be seen in the title ( the "elegy" is a typically classic genre, even if the interest in the countryside and ordinary people is a feature of Romanticism. This elegy is a poem celebrating the lives of simple country people buried in a churchyard. The poem is made up of 32 stanzas, each stanza of four lines written in iambic pentameters according to an ABAB rhy 515g65f me scheme. This stanza form is simple and low moving. The inner structure of the poem is based on an alternation of descriptions and reflections, the former being sometimes so precise and visually rendered as to suggest paintings. This pattern was dear to neoclassical poets as it enabled them to avoid the risk of monotony inherent in using only one the two models. In spite of this traditional device, the poem offers some novelties above all in the ambivalence of its content. At first sight the gentle Miltonic melancholy and peaceful setting seem to be in keeping with a contemporary taste for the pastoral poetry of Virgil or Theocritus. In fact neoclassical idealization of poor country life conceals the denunciation of what poverty means in terms of hardship and wasted potential, so that the "rude forefathers" come to be seen in the double role of both happy people and victims of nature and society. Their tombs, silent and obscure, become therefore the natural conclusion of an equally silent and obscure life, symbolized by the "buried gem" and the "unseen flower" (st.14). The gentle melancholy consequently turns into a more general sense of frustration which involves the poet himself and culminates in the final epitaph. The poem , modelled on the twenty-fourth Ode of Horace's First Book of odes, can be divided into three "moments".

Stanzas 1-14. It is evening and the poet is alone in a country churchyard, the sigh of the tombs of the "rude forefathers of the hamlet" call up in the poet's mind images of humble country life. The images, in symbolic elements such as: "the curfew...parting day" which suggests the sadness of the evening and the approach of the night and darkness, the counterpart of  death, the housewife's heart which suggests the fruitful life, the complaining to the moon, lead Gray to mediate on death and its levelling power, which sweeps away human differences (st.9).

Stanzas 12-13: Gray compares the humble lot of poor people with the great careers from which fate has excluded them. The poor remain anonymous because they do not have the opportunity to become famous. He says that there might be great poets, artists, politicians, leaders buried in the churchyard who never realized their potential because they were poor and uneducated (44-64). But he also considers how their poverty also prevented them from committing crimes and falling victims to luxury, pride and corruption. The life of the poor is praised, because, although lacking fame it is full of dignity and piety. Although they do not have great memorial monuments, their simple country graveyards are pitied by nature, who is a good mother for all their sons. Historical references intrude and link the second part to the first through the contrast between the simple funerals of the poor (st.21) and the great's pompous ones, a contrast emphasized by the use of capitalized personifications (Ambition is related to the mocking of simple joys and lives, Grandeur is related to a certain contempt of the simple life of the poor, Memory is related to discrimination because She raises no memorial monuments for the poor; Honour is linked to vanity since it cannot last after death; Flattery is related to uselessness, because she cannot soothe death, Knowledge is beyond the villagers' reach. Penury is related to repression because she prevented the villagers from developing their potential).

Stanzas 24-32: The poem ends with the supposed death of the author, his burial in the same churchyard and the epitaph on his tomb. A more personal note is brought into the poem, into the general themes of transience, obscurity and fame especially in the epitaph, which can be read as Gray's summing up of his own life and beliefs. "Death is final, the inevitable end of life, which comes to all alike, and makes all equal". The form and style of the poem are classical, the setting, content and tone are Romantic.


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