ebooks

cover of Crowell edition: “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard / Thomas Gray”

Gray’s Elegy

Thomas Gray (1716–1771) was another of those literary one-hit wonders. The Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, first published in 1751, was not his only work—“When ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise” is also Gray—but it’s the only one most people remember by name. To put it into perspective: at time of preparation (mid-2018), I find bits of the Elegy, with or without attri­bution, in four different ebooks I’ve previ­ously worked on. There are probably several others that I overlooked. Like Shakespeare, the 128-line poem is simply packed with quotations.

The Text

One of the more celebrated editions of the Elegy is that of John Martin, origi­nally published by John van Voorst in 1834. In good condi­tion, this book can be had for around $300, though if you really want to splurge, one recently sold at Christie’s for over $3000. (For truly stratospheric prices, look for the first-ever 1751 edition, titled archaically “Elegy Wrote in a Country Church-Yard”. But we need not go there.)

In any condition, this edition doesn’t seem to exist online, and I didn’t happen to have $300 lying around, so I used the next-best thing: the polyglot edition of 1839, also published by van Voorst. Fortunately the translations—Greek, Latin, German, Italian, French—were grouped on pages of their own, so I simply skipped them.

The Illustrations

The John Martin edition includes a full list of artists and engravers, including some Very Big Names: Constable. Landseer. Copley Fielding. I’ve shown the pictures as originally printed, immediately above the stanzas they illustrate.

In addition to Martin’s 33 engravings—title page plus one for each stanza—I’ve incorporated the illustrations from two other editions:

The Castell edition (London and New York, 1887) came with its own list of illustrators: Percy Tarrant, J. H. Browne, A. W. Parsons, A. M. Clausen and Herbert Dicksee. In this etext, Castell images are sepia-toned, without border.

The artist of the Crowell edition (New York, 1910) is uncredited, and I couldn’t find a signature or monogram. In this etext, Crowell images are the ones with captions. The first one, “Brushing with hasty steps the dews away”, was origi­nally the frontispiece; I have moved it to where it will do the most good.

The cover image at the top of this page is also Crowell. Mostly. Some libraries have a “do not cover up content” rule with regard to placing stickers on books. The libraries that own the Crowell edition of Gray’s Elegy do not—or, at least, didn’t at the time their respective copies were catalogued. So the cover image shown here is a composite of two different copies, from two different libraries.

ELEGY

WRITTEN IN

A COUNTRY CHURCH-YARD.

BY THOMAS GRAY.

Stokes-Poges church in 1834

LONDON:

JOHN VAN VOORST, 1, PATERNOSTER ROW.

TO

SAMUEL ROGERS, ESQ.

THIS

ILLUSTRATED EDITION

OF

GRAY’S ELEGY

IS DEDICATED

WITH THE GREATEST RESPECT

farmer carrying a scythe on his shoulder

Brushing with hasty steps the dews away

v

The great improvement that has taken place, within a few years, in the art of Engraving on Wood, as well as its general adoption, in some measure super­seding the use of Copper and Steel, led to the present attempt to apply this mode of embellishment to a Poem of such general and deserved celebrity, and which appeared to afford the greatest scope for the talents of the artist.

The Elegy itself has long been universally acknowledged as one of the most elegant compositions which the English language ever produced.

The following testimony to its great merit is not, perhaps, generally known, and will not here be inappropriately introduced.

General Wolfe received a copy on the eve of the assault on Quebec; he was so struck with its beauty, that he is said to have exclaimed, that he would have preferred being its author, to that of being the victor in the projected attack in which he so gloriously lost his life.

vi

The favour with which this edition may be received, will be entirely owing to the talents of the eminent artists who have so kindly seconded the Editor, if he may apply such a word, in his wish to produce a specimen of beautiful and appropriate illustration in this branch of the Fine Arts; and to them he begs to return his sincerest thanks.

JOHN MARTIN.

London,
Oct. 10th, 1834

farmer leading horses home

ILLUSTRATIONS.

STANZAS. PAINTERS. ENGRAVERS.
I. G. Barret. E. Landells.
II. Copley Fielding. J. Byfield.
III. J. Constable, R. A. T. Bagg.
IV. G. Cattermole. J. Byfield.
V. J. Constable, R. A. W. H. Powis.
VI. T. Stothard, R. A. C. Gray.
VII. P. Dewint. T. Williams.
VIII. W. Boxall. Branston.
IX. S. A. Hart, A. R. A. J. Jackson.
X. G. Cattermole. J. Smith.
XI. J. Constable, R. A. T. Bagg.
XII. Thomas Landseer. J. Byfield.
XIII. Frank Howard. T. Williams.
XIV. W. Westall, A. R. A. S. Slader.
XV. A. W. Callcott, R. A. J. Thompson.
XVI. J. H. Nixon. J. Jackson.
XVII. A. Cooper, R. A. S. Williams.
XVIII. W. Mulready, R, A. J. Thompson.
XIX. J. W. Wright. C. Gray.
XX. Charles Landseer. S. Slader.
XXI. J. J. Chalon, A. R. A. Branston.
XXII. H. Howard, R. A. M. Hart.
XXIII. R. Westall, R. A. C. Gray.
XXIV. J. W. Wright. C. Gray.
XXV. Copley Fielding. J. Jackson.
XXVI. G. Barret. J. Baxter.
XXVII. Thales Fielding. Sly and Wilson.
XXVIII. C. R. Stanley. J. Jackson.
XXIX. W. Collins, R. A. H. White.
XXX. Frank Howard. T. Williams.
XXXI. H. Howard, R. A. C. Gray.
XXXII. S. A. Hart, A. R. A. C. Gray.

The vignette on the title-page, engraved by W. H. Powis, is a view of Stoke-Poges church, Buckingham­shire, the church-yard of which is the scene of this celebrated poem, and near which is a monument erected to the memory of Gray by the late John Penn, Esq., of Stoke Park. The drawing, by John Constable, Esq. R.A., has been kindly offered to the editor since the publication of the former edition, and is in the possession of Samuel Rogers, Esq.

The tomb of the Poet is at the south-east corner of the chancel, near that of his aunt, Mrs. Mary Antrobus.

“Gray’s Elegy”

farmer standing among cows, looking at the sunset sky

I

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.

farmers leading their horses home

distant view of man heading for even more distant house, with sunset sky in the background

II

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:

clouded sky over distant rooftops

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight

man walking toward ruinous tower overlooking a river

III

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.

mother preparing two small children for bed

red-roofed church standing among autumn trees

IV

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.

group of chickens in overgrown farmyard

The cock’s shrill clarion

man leaning over gravestone in old churchyard

V

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,

The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,

The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,

No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

wife and children greeting father at the door

VI

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.

distant view of woodcutter and horses pulling a heavy cart

How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke

complicated piece of farm equipment, with church spire in the distance

VII

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield;

Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;

How jocund did they drive their team a-field!

How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

ducks in a placid lake, with two vignettes of workmen

mother with three children in her lap

VIII

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.

farm equipment in foreground, with cattle and horses on a distant hillside

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil

ornate triumphant military procession

IX

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

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

Await, alike, th’ inevitable hour;—

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

children in nightshirts greeting their father at the door

interior of vast cathedral

X

Nor you, ye proud! impute to these the fault,

If memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise;

Where, through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault,

The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

two soldiers standing before a tomb in a church

XI

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?

cloaked, hooded woman at a windblown grave

ruinous churchyard under a crescent moon

XII

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 wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

man wielding a pitchfork outside the door while his wife looks on

XIII

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.

church interior with vaulting

tropical scene of palm trees and rugged rocks

XIV

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.

small bunch of flowers

group of children around a broken toy

XV

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.

corner of garden fence

three small children gathering sheaves of grain

XVI

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,

waves breaking through gap in cliffs

soldiers on horseback riding over men on foot

XVII

Their lot forbad: nor circumscrib’d alone

Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;

Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne,

And shut the gates of mercy on mankind.

various well-dressed people standing idly about

XVIII

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.

group of men leaning over a farmyard fence

old woman helping a little girl read, while another woman stands outside holding a baby

XIX

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.

tall trees standing over a country house

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

man sitting on churchyard bench by a tree, looking at a gravestone

XX

Yet e’en these bones from insult to protect,

Some frail memorial still erected nigh,

With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,

Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

two men looking at a freshly covered grave with leaning headstone

XXI

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d Muse,

The place of fame and elegy supply;

And many a holy text around she strews,

That teach the rustic moralist to die.

coffin waiting by an open grave

bedridden man, with woman in mobcap opening the window

XXII

For who, to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,

This pleasing, anxious being e’er resign’d;

Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,

Nor cast one longing, lingering look behind?

seated woman bending over man in curtained bed

XXIII

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.

two men of different ages and stations, standing by a new grave

XXIV

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;

trees overhanging a brook

distant view of man in fields, with trees and goats

XXV

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.

steep hillside with grass and bushes

To meet the Sun upon the upland lawn

man resting under trees on a riverbank, with church in the distance

XXVI

“There, at the foot of yonder nodding beech,

That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,

His listless length, at noontide, would he stretch,

And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

young man and older man walking away from church

clump of trees at the edge of a field

XXVII

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

Muttering his wayward fancies, he would rove;

Now drooping, woeful, wan, like one forlorn,

Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.

man with bowed head at a graveside

sun shining through clouds over a valley

XXVIII

“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;

old man standing by a grave

funeral procession bearing coffin, approching church

XXIX

“The next, with dirges due, in sad array,

Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne.

Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay

Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

“The Epitaph”

young man sleeping under a tree, with church in the distance

XXX

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.

group of children by a bridge over a narrow stream

Near his fav’rite tree

man, woman and child resting by a tree

XXXI

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere;

Heaven did a recompense as largely send:

He gave to Misery all he had—a tear;

He gain’d from Heaven (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.

distant view of man walking on road with overhanging trees

mausoleum and one half-fallen gravestone under a gloomy sky

XXXII

No further 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.

words “The End” over a gate

Notes and Corrections

Since the “real” 1834 edition was unavailable to me, the text and layout of the title page are a best-guess approximation. On one hand is the polyglot edition; on the other is the pirated Appleton edition (see below).

[Introduction] he was so struck with its beauty, that he . . . exclaimed, that he would have preferred being its author, to that of being the victor in the projected attack in which he so gloriously lost his life
[For those who are hazy on the details of this particular war: General James Wolfe did, in fact, take Quebec after a protracted siege. And then he died of his wounds. There is a delightful article about Wolfe, including the “Gray’s Elegy” incident:

Sussing out the Plains of Abraham from a boat the day before the invasion, he famously recited the poem's most memorable line—“the paths of glory lead but to the grave”—then turned to his companions and said: “Gentle­men, I would rather have written that piece than take Quebec tomorrow.”

Earlier, there was Beckles Willson’s 1909 The Life and Letters of James Wolfe. In a footnote devoted to refuting the inevitable spoilsports who claimed it never happened, the author says dryly,

It must not be supposed that this was a matter of serious election, but it was a strong way of expressing his love of literature. ]

[XXX] Here rests his head
[Some editions, including Castell’s, give the header “The Epitaph” to these final stanzas.]

Extras

Appleton Edition

In 1851, long before there was such a thing as international copyright, a U.S. publisher—Appleton, with offices in New York and Philadelphia—came out with a pirated version of the John Martin edition. The text was word-for-word, letter-for-letter, comma-for-comma identical. The illustrations . . . Well, here is the church from Appleton’s title page:

colored picture of church as on title page

The other 32 pictures are similarly gaudy, possibly in order to draw attention from the so-so engraving. In the original, almost every illustration had a different engraver; Appleton had to make do with just one. They went with Phila­delphia-based Reuben S. Gilbert, who was active in the 1830s and ’40s. You can see his name under the nearest gravestone.

Castell Edition

Here are the Castell edition’s front cover, title page, list of illustrators, and back cover:

sundial with words “Gray’s Elegy”

title page of Castell edition: Elegy written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray / Castell Brothers / London E.C. / E & J. B. Young & Co. / New York

flower

Illustrated by
Percy Tarrant   J. H. Browne
A. W. Parsons   A. M. Clausen
& Herbert Dicksee

flower

man digging a grave

The original of this text is in the public domain—at least in the U.S.
My notes are copyright, as are all under-the-hood elements.
If in doubt, ask.