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An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard (1751) and

The Augustan Reprint Society

THOMAS GRAY

_An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard_

(1751)

and

_The Eton College Manuscript_

With an Introduction by

George Sherburn

Publication Number 31

Los Angeles Williams Andrews Clark Memorial Library University of California 1951

GENERAL EDITORS

H. RICHARD ARCHER, _Clark Memorial Library_ RICHARD C. BOYS, _University of Michigan_ JOHN LOFTIS, _University of California, Los Angeles_

ASSISTANT EDITOR

W. EARL BRITTON, _University of Michigan_

ADVISORY EDITORS

EMMETT L. AVERY, _State College of Washington_ BENJAMIN BOYCE, _Duke University_ LOUIS I. BREDVOLD, _University of Michigan_ CLEANTH BROOKS, _Yale University_ JAMES L. CLIFFORD, _Columbia University_ ARTHUR FRIEDMAN, _University of Chicago_ EDWARD NILES HOOKER, _University of California, Los Angeles_ LOUIS A. LANDA, _Princeton University_ SAMUEL H. MONK, _University of Minnesota_ ERNEST MOSSNER, _University of Texas_ JAMES SUTHERLAND, _University College, London_ H.T. SWEDENBERG, JR., _University of California, Los Angeles_

INTRODUCTION

To some the eighteenth-century definition of proper poetic matter is unacceptable; but to any who believe that true poetry may (if not "must") consist in "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed," Gray's "Churchyard" is a majestic achievement--perhaps (accepting the definition offered) the supreme achievement of its century. Its success, so the great critic of its day thought, lay in its appeal to "the common reader"; and though no friend of Gray's other work, Dr. Johnson went on to commend the "Elegy" as abounding "with images which find a mirrour in every mind and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo." Universality, clarity, incisive lapidary diction--these qualities may be somewhat staled in praise of the "classical" style, yet it is precisely in these traits that the "Elegy" proves most nobly. The artificial figures of rhetorical arrangement that are so omnipresent in the antitheses, chiasmuses, parallelisms, etc., of Pope and his school are in Gray's best quatrains unobtrusive or even infrequent.

Often in the art of the period an affectation of simplicity covers and reveals by turns a great thirst for ingenuity. Swift's prose is a fair example; in the "Tale of a Tub" and even in "Gulliver" at first sight there seems to appear only an honest and simple directness; but pry beneath the surface statements, or allow yourself to be dazzled by their coruscations of meaning, and you immediately see you are watching a stylistic prestidigitator. The later, more orderly dignity of Dr. Johnson's exquisitely chosen diction is likewise ingeniously studied and self-conscious. When Gray soared into the somewhat turgid pindaric tradition of his day, he too was slaking a thirst for rhetorical complexities. But in the "Elegy" we have none of that. Nor do we have artifices like the "chaste Eve" or the "meek-eyed maiden" apostrophized in Collins and Joseph Warton. For Gray the hour when the sky turns from opal to dusk leaves one not "breathless with adoration," but moved calmly to placid reflection tuned to drowsy tinklings or to a moping owl. It endures no contortions of image or of verse. It registers the sensations of the hour and the reflections appropriate to it--simply.


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