Elegy Unto Epitaph: Print Culture and Commemorative Practice in Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

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From its inception in classical times, elegy has been a vehicle by which a poet negotiates his own poetic maturation and grapples with the risks and gains attendant upon the acquisition of public voice. In the elegies of Moschus, Bion, Spenser, and Milton, for example, poets use the death of a fellow poet as a means to secure their own poetic stature. The shape that an elegy takes, hence, must reflect the terms on which and arena within which the poet gives birth to himself as a public figure. Peter Sacks, in his book, The English Elegy, has done much to explain how elegies work. Reading widely in the tradition of pastoral elegy, Sacks describes how the elegiac poet confronts the abyss of death and, in the face of that abyss, confirms his own vitality. Using Freud's writings as a theoretical framework, Sacks argues that an elegy performs a work of mourning whose dynamic of loss and gain models itself as oedipal conflict and resolution. The elegist must rupture his attachment to the dead in order to effect a renewed attachment with the living. Elegies accomplish this task by making recourse to the substitutive and differential powers of language to place the dead at a remove from the living, and posit a compensatory figure--a star or a flower, for example--that marks the transformation of loss into gain. Sacks's fine theoretical work and his lucid interpretation of a number of canonical elegies have set the stage for much recent discussion of the genre. Relying on a psychoanalytic framework that divides melancholia from the precincts of normative mourning and proper elegy, however, quickly forecloses discussion of the many elegies, particularly in the 20th century, that deviate from this norm. A comparative methodology, furthermore, leaves out of the discussion significant historical shifts that condition poetic utterance and the profession of literature. This lapse is particularly conspicuous in a genre like elegy that concerns itself explicitly with how poets enter a public field and the symbolic means by which they sketch the acquisition of mature vocative potential. A full understanding of elegy needs to move beyond a syntagmatic analysis and follow the genre in its evolution. Indeed, historical shifts in how poets communicate with and anticipate audiences must have a profound impact on the genre itself, altering both what elegies do and how they do it.

Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," written at mid-century, provides a good test case for judging how the incipient professionalization of literature affects and alters elegy. It must be noted that Gray's "Elegy" diverges significantly from elegiac convention. First, although many have presumed the loss of Richard West to have formed an urgent context for the "Elegy," West is not named, and, according to Roger Lonsdale's extensive notes, Gray probably began his poem in 1746, several years after West's death in 1742 (Poems 103-110). The "Elegy " is, however, undeniably shaped by the loss of West, if for no other reason than, as Joshua Scodel notes, Gray lost the one reader on whose sympathies he could rely without hesitation.[1] Second, Gray's poem lacks many of the genre's conventional motifs. We find no procession of mourners, no catalogue of flowers, and no refrain of grief. Moreover, Gray's poem eschews any of the standard figures that lent compensatory closure to earlier literary mourners, such as the flower of Bion's Lament for Adonis or the star adopted by Spenser and Milton to figure the risen dead. Finally, the "Elegy " ends with the imagined death of the poet. In Lycidas, the poet/swain in the poem, together with the author, anticipate "Pastures new" on the morrow. In Gray's "Elegy," the frail youth, "woeful wan" and "crazed with care," lies beneath a stone and an inscription engraved by the hand of a writer who, by all accounts, would have let his creation die an obscure death. The contrast could hardly be more stark. If elegy's central concern is securing the continued life of the poet as a living voice in the face of death, placing the poet's death within its confines constitutes a most disturbing departure from the convention. …