The Elegy in Thomas Gray and Shelley

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‘Elegy is about mourning for one’s own condition’

Stuart Curran, ‘Romantic Elegiac Hybridity’, in The Oxford Handbook to Elegy (Oxford, 2010), ed. Karen Weisman, p. 249

Discuss Curran’s comment in relation to the work of Thomas Gray and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

'One of the major tasks of the work of mourning and of the work of the elegy is to repair the mourner's damaged narcissism'[1]. This quote by literary critic Peter Sacks, flourishes from Sigmund Freud's model of primary narcissism which suggests that 'we love others less for their uniqueness and separateness, and more for their ability to contract our own abundance, that is, to embody and reflect back that part of ourselves that we have invested in them'[2]. Sacks expands this coalescence in his criticism of elegies such as Milton's Lycidas and Tennyson's In Memoriam. Using this model of narcissism and literary mourning along with key aspects of history, language and critical reviews, I will explicate how an 'elegy is about mourning for one's own condition[3] in Thomas Grays' Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard and Percy Shelley's Adonais,

Before delving straight into how the poems serve as elegies to the poets themselves, I will first discuss how the poems appear and attempt in their best capacity not to do so. Samuel Johnson famously commented on Gray's Elegy saying that 'The Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo'[4]. The portrayal of such a literary universality springs from the poem's apparent mourning of the common man. Gray laments a ubiquitous sense of mortality, paying homage to the archetypical 'weary plowman'[5] who falls prey to 'dumb Forgetfulness' (85) and lies forgotten in his 'lowly bed' (20). This notion that the poem 'is life in its most general form, reinterpreted so as to speak to mankind generally, where all men are comparable and consciousness seeks a universal voice'[6] can be understandably gathered from a superficial analysis of the poem. The poem is not just an elegy, but a pastoral elegy, a literary form that encompasses idyllic rustic life with death, a technique employed by Gray to enhance his mournful depiction of the common, simple man who labours away unfulfilled only to die unremembered. Phrases such as 'mopeing owls' (10), 'twitt'ring swallows' (18) and 'ecchoing horns' (19) create the image of a bucolic and generic place, one where villagers engage in rural and generic activities – 'oft did the harvest to their sickle yield' (25) and 'how bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke' (28) The constant use of third person plural pronouns such as 'they', 'their' and 'them' allow the reader to merge these villagers into one, once again echoing the universality of the poem. Although the title tries to deliver a place for the poem, ambiguous descriptions such as 'the glimmering landscape' (5), 'the distant folds' (8), 'the upland lawn' (100) and the 'custom'd hill' (109), accentuate the poem's attempt to be nowhere and everywhere. Marshall Brown in his essay Gray's Churchyard Space' suggests that “everything and nothing is shared with all and none in a world that is nowhere and everywhere”[7]. This displacement coupled with the fact that the poem refers to no one in particular, creates a sense of timelessness in keeping with it's universality, thereby supporting Johnson's credo that 'The Churchyard finds a mirror in every mind'[8]. Marshall Brown further reveals that the 'poem evokes the possibility of a language and a consciousness beyond station, beyond definition and beyond identity'[9]. Gray accomplishes this by the illustration of an all-encompassing world. The poem drifts from a 'solemn stillness' (6) to the 'cock's shrill clarion' (19), from a 'blazing hearth' (21) to a 'frozen soul' (52), from 'parting day' (1) to the 'incense-breathing morn' (16), from the 'desert air' (56) to the 'smiling...
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