Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and other poems – Thomas Gray

This Christmas I have chosen another of the Allen Lane Christmas books, in this case the first of them which was printed in a limited edition run of just 250 copies in 1928 with wood engravings by Clarke Hutton for Allen and Dick Lane to distribute as Christmas gifts. At the time the brothers were working at what was their uncle John Lane’s publishing house The Bodley Head in London and this book, unlike most of the others is published by The Bodley Head. John Lane had died in 1925 and Allen and Dick were now running the business when they revived his idea of a Christmas gift book which he had first done when he set up the company in 1887. My copy is slightly damp stained on the spine and foxed on the dedication page, but it is such a rare book that I was happy to be able to get this copy for my collection.

This collection is a slightly odd one for a Christmas gift as the three poems are certainly not full of the Christmas cheer. The Elegy is, by its nature, quite sombre as the poet reflects on the past lives of those in the graves around him. ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’ is also looking back to Gray’s own childhood there but also to the difficulties that will be faced by the current pupils as they grow up and enter the adult world. The final poem gives away its downbeat theme from its title ‘On a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes’.

The only Christmas link to these works is that Gray was born on Boxing Day (26th December) 1716. Whilst he lived to be 54, he only published thirteen poems during his lifetime; his best known work is undoubtedly ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ and this would go on to influence poets and other writers over the following centuries, not least Thomas Hardy who got his title of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ from the nineteenth stanza.

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 tenor of their way.

Stanley Kubrick’s great anti war movie ‘Paths of Glory‘ also gets its title from this poem where the full line is ‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave’.

‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’ consists of ten stanzas each of ten lines and is probably best known for its penultimate line which is the first use of the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ which sums up the happiness of the boys whilst they are at school as they are ignorant of the problems they will face as they grow up.

To each his suff’rings: all are men,
Condemn’d alike to groan,
The tender for another’s pain;
Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise

‘On a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes’ is based on a true story and the cat apparently belonged to Horace Walpole who featured in a blog of mine from May this year about The Age of Scandal by TH White. It is basically a morality tale where the cat dies through its own greed and again has a famous line, although this time Gray is not the originator but has adapted a phrase created by William Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, ‘All that glisters is not gold‘. Thomas Gray’s version is the last line of this poem and sums up the cautionary tale extremely well.

From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters gold.

To repeat Allen and Dick, With Greetings and Best Wishes for the Coming Year. Merry Christmas.

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