Lectures/Literary criticism/Thomas Gray/Elegy's influence

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This lecture focuses on the influence of Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, and his other poems to a lesser extent, on British Romantic and Victorian poets. It will study how the poem inspired either an emphasis on different subject matter, including death and the common person, or on the reuse of various phrases by poets.

Contemporary poets[edit | edit source]

In choosing an "English" feel to the language and setting, Gray provided a model for later poets wishing to describe England and the English countryside. His choice of language, words, and feelings that connected to rural England served as the model for Oliver Goldsmith's and William Cowper's works during the second half of the 18th century.[1] Beyond his own poetry, Goldsmith would play around with the lines of the poem by removing words to emend what it said.[2]

Romantic poets[edit | edit source]

As a whole, the Romantics believed that Gray represented the poetic orthodoxy they were rebelling against in that he did not try to overcome death in his poem, but they used Gray's ideas when attempting to define their own beliefs.[3] Part of Romanticism, following Wordsworth, sought to overcome what the British Romantic poets felt were problems with the language. During their lifetime, there was a debate between the what constituted "poetry and prose", and they sought to establish a language of poetry, which is the same action Gray sought to accomplish. Gray tried to overcome the problems by using his contemporary diction but separated out certain words that would be deemed "poetic". Wordsworth, in Lyrical Ballads, argued for a simplification of the language to what was "real". Although both are opposite approaches, they do compliment each other as they attempt to attain the same linguistic goal.[4]

William Blake[edit | edit source]

As an early poet in the Romantic period, Blake's are not truly Romantic nor is he connected to the previous movement, the Augustan poets. Instead, he is viewed as part of a transition into Romanticism and he is similar to the group of writers that include Gray, along with William Cowper, Christopher Smart, Thomas Chatterton, and Robert Burns.[5] While Blake lived in Lambeth, home to many of his illustrations and poems, he illustrated some of Gray's poems. The illustrations are lighter than Blake's normal seriousness, and Blake thought that Gray represented something new.[6]

William Wordsworth[edit | edit source]

Gray's Elegy was highly influential and provoked a response from the Romantic poets. When William Wordsworth wrote the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads he responded to Gray's techniques and responded to the ideas Elegy with his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" ode.[3] However, Wordsworth, in the "Preface" is also relying on Gray's technique of defending his intentions.[7] Gray also influenced the language Wordsworth used when he described his education and the death of his father in The Prelude.[8] Even the idea of the narrator recounting his own development is related to Gray's elegy and the recounting of the swain's life. However, Wordsworth describes discontent with an individual lost to only his outward appearance in his poem, which is what happens in Gray's.[9] In The Excursion, Wordsworth described the "mute" in a manner similar to Gray's "mute inglorious Miltons". Gray's poem connects the muteness to the natural state people are unable to avoid but Wordsworth disconnects nature from such a connection to people. Wordsworth's poem tried to conquer the muteness and to give a voice where there was none before.[10]

Percy Bysshe Shelley[edit | edit source]

As a schoolboy, Percy Bysshe Shelley translated part of the Elegy into Latin and would visit the churchyard at Stoke Poges.[11] Later in 1815, when Shelley stayed in Lechelade, he visited the churchyard and composed "A Summer Evening Churchyard, Lechlade, Gloucestershire", which echoes the language of Gray.[12]

Victorian poets[edit | edit source]

Alfred Tennyson[edit | edit source]

Alfred Tennyson adopts many features of the Elegy in his poem In Memoriam. He establishes a ceremonial, almost religious, tone by reusing the idea of the "kneel" and "toll" to mark the coming night. This is followed with the poet narrator looking through letters of his deceased friend that is similar to Gray's narrator reading the tombstones to connect to the deceased.[13] Although Gray is not Tennyson's greatest influence from the 18th century, Tennyson poetry contains more allusions to Gray than to the other poets from the time that may have influenced Tennyson more.[14]

Robert Browning[edit | edit source]

Robert Browning relied on a similar setting to the Elegy in his pastoral poem "Love Among the Ruins", which describes the desire for glory and how everything ends in death. Unlike Gray, Burns adds a female figure and argues that nothing but love matters.[15]

Thomas Hardy[edit | edit source]

Thomas Hardy memorized Gray's Elegy and the poem influenced his collection Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898). Many of Hardy's poems contained a graveyard theme and he based his poems on Gray's views. In particular, "Friends Beyond" was modeled on the Elegy. Even the frontispiece to the collection contained an image of a graveyard with the phrase "At mothy curfew-tide" beneath it. The line is from one of his poems but also refers to Elegys first line: "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day".[16]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Griffin 2002 pp. 166–167
  2. Hutchings 1987 p. 83
  3. 3.0 3.1 Mileur 1987 p. 119
  4. Goodman 2008 p. 82
  5. Frye 1990 p. 167
  6. Raine 1996 p. 98
  7. Rzepka 1986 p. 66
  8. Johnston 2001 pp. 66, 70
  9. Rzepka 1986 p. 42
  10. Goodman 2008 p. 142
  11. Bieri 2008 pp. 46, 61
  12. Holmes 1976 p. 293
  13. Sacks 1985 pp. 191-192
  14. Shaw 1976 p. 29
  15. Ryals 1996 p. 114
  16. Turner 2001 p. 164

References[edit | edit source]

  • Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.
  • Goodman, Kevis. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Griffin, Dustin. Patriotism and Poetry in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. London: Quartet Books, 1976.
  • Hutchings, W. "Syntax of Death: Instability in Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" in Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
  • Johnston, Kenneth. The Hidden Wordsworth. New York: Norton, 2001.
  • Mileur, Jean-Pierre. "Spectators at Our Own Funerals". in Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
  • Raine, Kathleen. William Blake. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
  • Ryals, Clyde de L. The Life of Robert Browning. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
  • Rzepka, Charles. The Self as Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.
  • Sacks, Peter. The English Elegy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
  • Shaw, W. David. Tennyson's Style. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1976.
  • Turner, Paul. The Life of Thomas Hardy. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.