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.
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 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.
A COUNTRY CHURCH-YARD.
BY THOMAS GRAY.
JOHN VAN VOORST, 1, PATERNOSTER ROW.
SAMUEL ROGERS, ESQ.
WITH THE GREATEST RESPECT
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.
Oct. 10th, 1834
|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.|
|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.
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.
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 tower,
The moping Owl does to the Moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
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.
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.
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 a-field!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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 noontide, 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 craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.
“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 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.”
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 Misery all he had—a tear;
He gain’d from Heaven (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.
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.
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.]
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:
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.
Here are the Castell edition’s front cover, title page, list of illustrators, and back cover:
Percy Tarrant J. H. Browne
A. W. Parsons A. M. Clausen
& Herbert Dicksee
The original of this text has been in the public domain for years
in the U.S. and most other parts of the world.
All I’ve done is put it online.