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Poems Every Child Should Know by  Mary E. Burt


 

 

ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCHYARD

"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (Gray, 1716-71). I once drove from Windsor Castle through Eton, down the long hedge-bound road which passes the estate of William Penn's descendants to Stoke Pogis, the little churchyard where this poem was written. They were trimming a great yew-tree under which Gray was said to have written this poem. The scene is one of peace and quiet. The "elegy" was a favourite form of poem with the ancients, but Gray is said to have reached the climax among poets in this style of verse. The great line of the poem is:

"The path of glory leads but to the grave."

It would almost seem that poetry has for its greatest mission the lesson of a proper humility.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,

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The plowman 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 tow'r

The moping owl does to the moon complain

Of such as, wandering near her secret bow'r,

Molest her ancient solitary reign.


Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,

Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,

Each in his narrow cell forever laid,

The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.


The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,

The swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built 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 bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!


[308]

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 pow'r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,

Await alike th' inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.


Forgive, ye Proud, th' involuntary fault

If Memory to these no trophies raise,

Where thro' the long-drawn aisle 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 Flatt'ry 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 sway'd,

Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.


But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page

Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;

Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul.


Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.


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Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast

The little tyrant of his fields withstood;

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,

Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.


Th' applause of listening senates to command,

The threats of pain and ruin to despise,

To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,

And read their history in a nation's eyes,


Their lot forbad: nor circumscribed alone

Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined

Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne,

And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,


The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,

To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,

Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride

With incense, kindled at the Muse's flame.


Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,

Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;

Along the cool sequester'd vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.


Yet e'en those bones from insult to protect

Some frail memorial still erected nigh,

With uncouth rhimes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,

Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.


Their name, their years, spelt by th' unlettered Muse,

The place of fame and elegy supply.

[310]

And many a holy text around she strews

That teach the rustic moralist to die.


For who to dumb forgetfulness a prey,

This pleasing anxious being e'er resigned,

Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,

Nor cast one longing, ling'ring look behind?


On some fond breast the parting soul relies,

Some pious drops the closing eye requires;

E'en from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,

E'en in our ashes live their wonted fires.


For thee, who, mindful of th' unhonour'd dead,

Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;

If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,

Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,


Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,

"Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn

Brushing with hasty steps the dews away,

To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.


"There at the foot of yonder nodding beech

That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,

His listless length at noon-tide would he stretch,

And pore upon the brook that babbles by.


"Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,

Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove;

Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,

Or crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless love.


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"One morn I miss'd him on the custom'd hill,

Along the heath, and near his favourite tree;

Another came; nor yet beside the rill,

Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he.


"The next with dirges due in sad array

Slow thro' the church-way path we saw him borne.

Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,

Graved on the stone beneath yon agèd thorn."


THE EPITAPH

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth

A Youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown;

Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth,

And Melancholy mark'd him for her own.


Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,

Heaven did a recompense as largely send:

He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a tear:

He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a friend.


No farther seek his merits to disclose,

Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,

(There they alike in trembling hope repose,)

The bosom of his Father and his God.


THOMAS GRAY.


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