Monday, June 6, 2011

"The short and simple annals of the poor": Gray's Elegy and the common reader

Does anyone read Gray's "Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard" (1750) any more? It was, once, a very famous poem. I remember reading it in 8th grade a long time ago. We didn't learn much about poetry and we didn't read much of it, but our teacher thought we ought at least to be exposed to Gray's famous Elegy. (And there were a few others which, I'm glad to say, I've completely forgotten—except for a part of a line which remains stupidly lodged in my memory: "Abu Benadem(?) may his tribe increase . . . .")

Here's how Gray's Elegy goes (in part):

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
  The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
  And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
  And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
  And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower  
  The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
  Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
  Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
  The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
  The swallow twittering from the straw-build shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
  No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
  Or busy housewife ply her evening care;
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
  Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
  Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
  How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not ambition mock their useful toil,
  Their homely joys and destiny obscure;
Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
  The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
  And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Await alike the inevitable hour.
  The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
  If memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aile and fretted vault
  The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
  Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
  Or flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
  Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed
  Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

But knowledge to their eyes her ample page 
  Rich with spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill penury repressed their noble rage,
  And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
  The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
  And waste its sweetness on the desert air. . . . 
[You should read the rest of it; consult almost any anthology of English poetry.]
Death, of course, is the great equalizer, but why leave it at that?  Since life is more comfortable and more fun for those who have money and education than it is for those who have neither, why not make it a little easier for the poor to better their lot?  It is not much comfort for those whose lives have been stunted by "chill penury" to be told that "the paths of glory lead but to the grave." But mine are modern thoughts; no one was thinking along these lines in 1750.

William Empson noticed a long time ago that those images of gems at the bottom of the sea and flowers wasting their "sweetness on the desert air" make us feel that the waste of human energies and talents that Gray is commenting on is part of natural order of things; that's just how it is. Those gems don't mind being at the bottom of the sea and nor do those flowers care if there is no one around to appreciate them.

The fact that even Johnson, who knew all about the injuries of class, admired this poem, reminds us—if we need reminding—what a recent (and perhaps temporary) thing democracy is. In his chapter on Gray, in Lives of the Poets, he commented on the universal acclaim that Gray's poem had received and said that he rejoiced "to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be decided all claim to literary honors." This remark is of particular interest because Virginia Woolf used Johnson's idea of "the common reader" as the literary and organizing principle for her two magnificent volumes of literary scholarship and criticism, the first and second Common Readers, which though uncorrupted by literary prejudices or dogmatic learning are not exactly what the common readers of today are likely to find entertaining. For there is, perhaps, no one at any time who remains entirely uncorrupted by literary prejudices. I know I am, as you can see by my remarks on Gray's famous poem: to me, Gray while not being in the least romantic, is shamelessly romanticizing the desperate lives of the English peasantry. And I have an ulterior motive: I want you to compare Gray's poem with a passage from a novel by George Gissing written in 1886 and quoted byVirginia Woolf in her chapter on this now largely unknown writer. Gissing is describing a cemetery in the East End of London:

"Here on the waste limits of that dread east, to wander among tombs is to go hand-in-hand with the stark and eyeless emblems of mortality; the spirit fails beneath the cold burden of ignoble destiny. Here lie those who were born for toil; who when toil has worn them to the uttermost, have but to yield their useless breath and pass into oblivion. For them is no day, only the brief twilight of a winter's sky between the former and the latter night. For them no aspiration; for them no hope of memory in the dust; their very children are wearied into forgetfulness. Indistinguishable units in the vast throng that labors but to support life, the name of each, father, mother, child, is but a dumb cry for warmth and love of which fate so stinted them. The wind wails above their narrow tenements; the sandy soil, soaking in the rain as soon as it has fallen, is a symbol of the great world which absorbs their toil and straightway blots their being."

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