Thursday, May 14, 2009

On Some Fond Breast The Parting Soul Relies

Despite its name, the following was not written in a country churchyard, but was painstakingly written and re-written over the course of at least six years, maybe as long as nine years. (Why is it that poets like to create the illusion that poems spring fully formed from their pens?) Just for fun I've added in a stanza that was in the poem for awhile, but that Gray ultimately eliminated before publication. Those of you who already know the poem, can you spot the one that didn't make it past his final re-write?

Ellegy Written in a Country Churchyard
by Thomas Gray

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm'ring 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 tow'r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand'ring near her secret bow'r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring 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 twitt'ring 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 afield!
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 pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem'ry o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro' 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 Flatt'ry 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 flow'r 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 list'ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
And read their hist'ry in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib'd alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin'd;
Forbade 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 tenor of their way.

Yet ev'n 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, ling'ring look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev'n 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.

"Him have we seen the greenwood side along,
While o'er the heath we hied, our labours done,
Oft as the woodlark pip'd her farewell song,
With wistful eyes pursue the setting sun.

"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,
Mutt'ring 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 fav'rite 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 thro' 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,
Heav'n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis'ry (all he had) a tear,
He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) 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.


John W. May said...

Thank you for your kind reply Mr. Doug Baker

I like Thomas Gray. I’m studying his poem The Progress of Poesy to better understand the structure of odes.

I almost don’t want to guess, since by guessing wrong I might seem to approve of a poem the poet himself disapproved of. But I’ll give it a go… The imagery of the seventh stanza is beautiful, and draws a very specific picture in my mind, but to employ the idea of death through reaping seems not only too soon in the poem, it doesn’t seem connected to the stanzas that surround it. That’s my final answer:

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

By the way (I’m still trying to understand this), why do poets blot out the letter ‘e’ in certain words (e.g. glimm'ring, wand'ring, Mutt'ring; or tow'r, bow'r, etc)?? Some even alternate between the letter ‘v’ and ‘e’ (fav'rite and o’er)

Doug P. Baker said...

A good guess, John, but the seventh stanza made the cut and was included in the published form of the poem. Good reasoning, though.

As to your question, many poets will elide a letter to let the reader know to elide the sound. In this way the poet maintains control of the meter and rhythm of the line.

It is all for the sound.

Generally a poet will elide a sound that is barely pronounced anyway. The "e" is often somewhat less than a full syllable in spoken English.

The "v" on the other hand would make the word "over" into two complete syllables when you or I say it. But in Gray's England it was often said more like a "w" making the word sound like "ower." In that case the word has more than one but less than two syllables in it. In order to maintain the rhythm he wanted he had to make sure the reader didn't exagerate the partial syllable that comes after the "w" sound, so he elided the "v."

In the last line before the epitaph you will see that he elided the "e" from the word "grav'd." Then at the end of the line he left the "e" in the word "aged." Thus, he intends us to eliminate any enunciation of the "e" in graved, leaving it as close as possible to one syllable. At the same time he wants us to pronounce the "e" in "aged" making it into two syllables.

In this way he accentuates and protects the rhythm that his words are making.

Look at the third line in the ninth stanza. Here Gray elides the "e" from "the," making it "th' inevitable hour." By eliding the "e" he simply writes it the way we generally say it. Our tongues would normally put so little emphasis on the "e" when it comes before a short vowel (excepting sometimes a short "u") that it would almost add no time to the reading of the line. In essense the "th" becomes the intitial sound of the word "inevitable."

But what will happen if an over scrupulous reader comes along with the notion that poetry is a different thing than speech (which it is not). Such a reader might feel impelled to 'correct' her diction and to enunciate every sound, even though she would not do so in common speech. Thus Gray's line would end up with an extraneous syllable, and it could be long or short, and in either case it would topple the gentle flowing rhythm that he has taken pains to establish.

So the poet elides the letter to cause the reader to elide the sound, thus protecting the author's intentions regarding the sound of the line.

I have posted on syllables and half syllables before; it goes into some of this in more detail. Just go on the left of the page and look down through the "topics" until you come to "syllables." It is near the bottom.

Alternately copy this address into your browser; it should take you there.

Does anyone else have a guess as to which stanza did not make the final author's cut before publication?

Devika said...

I like it so much I will come again to read it again, Doug :)

Thank you for posting this, Doug...and the link on syllables...i wanted to learn more about it..will come later :)