Gray Writes the Elegy

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Recently I was conversing with a practical man of affairs who had just returned from his first visit to Europe. Art galleries had proved tiresome and Westminster Abbey had bored him. But there was one place that he had determined to see and see it he did.

"What place was that?" I asked.

"Stoke Pogis," was the reply.

Is not this answer indicative of the attitude of thousands who can never forget the exquisite charm cast over their youth by the melancholy beauty of the Elegy in a Country Church-yard? If fame was the end of General Wolfe's ambition, he was wise in saying that he would rather have written the Elegy than be able to take Quebec on the morrow; for of all English poems the Elegy is the most popular and widely known; it is the flower of the "literature of melancholy." The Elegy is the glorification of the obscure; therein lies its popularity. The most of us are obscure. The Elegy flatters us by suggesting that we might have swayed the rod of empire or "waked to ecstasy the living lyre," if we had had the chance,—or, what we think is more likely the explanation, if we had not had a saner insight into the values of life than the Miltons and Cromwells.

Stoke Pogis is always associated with the name of Gray. It is a village, if such it may be called, between London and Windsor Castle. The church is "on a little level space about four miles north of the Thames at Eton. From the neighborhood of the church no vestige of hamlet or village is visible, and the aspect of the place is slightly artificial, like a rustic church in a park on a stage. The traveler almost expects to see the grateful peasantry of an opera, cheerfully habited, make their appearance, dancing on the greensward."

Gray and his mother, the father having died in 1741, went to Stoke Pogis in 1742. At West End House, a simple farmhouse of two stories, Gray lived for many years. In the autumn of 1742 was begun the Elegy in a Country Church-yard. The common impression is that the whole poem was written at Stoke Pogis, but this is not the truth. It is better to say that it was begun in October or November at Stoke Pogis, continued seven years later at the same place and at Cambridge, and finished at Stoke Pogis on June 12th, 1750. It is interesting to note that in each case an impetus was given to the composition of the poem by the death of a friend. Several months before the poem was begun in 1742, West, a friend whose death made a very deep impression upon the sensitive nature of Gray, had passed away; and on October 31 Jonathan Rogers, an uncle of Gray's, died at Stoke Pogis; and when the poem was next taken up Gray was mourning the death of his aunt. In commenting on this subject Mr. Gosse writes,—"He was a man who had a very slender hold on life himself, who walked habitually in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and whose periods of greatest vitality were those in which bereavement proved to him that, melancholy as he was, even he had something to lose and to regret."

On the 12th of June, 1750, Gray wrote to his friend, Horace Walpole,—"Having put an end to a thing whose beginning you have seen long ago, I immediately send it to you. You will, I hope, look upon it in the light of a thing with an end to it: a merit that most of my writings have wanted, and are like to want." Walpole was naturally delighted with the poem—so delighted, in fact, that he handed it about from friend to friend and even made manuscript copies of it. This caused some embarrassment to the poet. In February, 1751, he was annoyed to find that the publisher of the Magazine of Magazines was actually printing his Elegy in his periodical. So Gray immediately wrote to Walpole: "As I am not at all disposed to be either so indulgent or so correspondent as they desire, I have but one bad way to escape the honor they would inflict upon me: and therefore am obliged to desire you would make Dodsley print it immediately (which may be done in less than a week's time) from your copy, but without my name, in what form is most convenient for him, but on his best paper and character; he must correct the press himself, and print it without any interval between the stanzas, because the sense is in some places continued without them." On the 16th of February, only five days after this letter was received, An Elegy wrote in a Country Church-yard appeared as a large quarto pamphlet, anonymous, price sixpence.

From the very first it achieved great popularity. Magazine after magazine published it without giving the author any compensation. Gray was soon hit upon as the author. Unfortunately, the success of the poem gave no increased income to the poet. Dodsley, the publisher, is said to have made about a thousand pounds from the various poems of Gray, but Gray had the impractical idea that it was not dignified for a poet to make money from poetry.

In view of this lack of compensation for his poetic writings, it is very gratifying to know that during the latter days of his life Gray enjoyed the emolument arising from his holding the chair of Modern Literature and Modern Languages at Cambridge. This paid him 400 pounds a year, and did not require much work, as the office was a sinecure.

One of the biographers points out that this promotion was brought about inadvertently through the riotous living of Gray's great enemy, Lord Sandwich. Professor Lawrence Brockett, the incumbent of the chair of Literature at Cambridge, dined with Lord Sandwich at Hinchinbroke. He became so drunk that in riding home to Cambridge he fell from his horse and broke his neck. At once five obscure dons made brisk application for the vacant place, and Gray, sensitive and lacking the arts of the politician, did not expect the place. But the author of the Elegy was no longer to be neglected. He soon received a letter highly complimenting his work and offering him the professorship. Gray accepted and was summoned to court to kiss the hand of the monarch, George III. The king made several complimentary remarks to Gray. Afterwards when the poet's friends asked Gray to tell them what the king had said he replied that the room was so hot and he so embarrassed that he really did not know what the king had said.

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 gained from Heaven—'twas all he wished—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.