Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. It is impossible to wander in such places without some residual memory of this most English of poems, one that has seeped into the English cultural bloodstream more thoroughly than any other single poem, and is surely more widely loved and read than any other verse of its time. Even those who haven't read a poem since childhood (maybe not even then) will have those resonant phrases and twilit images lingering in their heads somewhere - the tolling curfew bell, the lowing herd, the solemn stillness, the flowers born to blush unseen, the mute inglorious Milton, gem of purest ray serene, far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife, the paths of glory lead but to the grave, etc, etc.
There is something quintessentially English about both the setting and the mood of the poem. The English love of countryside - in particular the humanised countryside represented by the rural village - shines through, along with an equally English, slightly sentimental, slightly romanticised view of the organic nature of village life, and the notion that the socially lowly might have greatness in them, and that fame and glory have shaky, very human foundations. In the end, high or low, we are all dead. The time - the end of the day - and its attendant mood of wistfully reflective melancholy are very much to English taste. The light is low and fading, outlines are soft, sounds are stilled - that is the way we English, in our more poetic moods, like it. We also have an innate distrust of excessive smoothness and perfection - and Gray's Elegy obliges by being formally imperfect, with its inconclusive argument and tacked-on final section. It isn't even, in classical terms, an elegy (if that's what you want, see Milton's Lycidas) - but it has the elegiac mood, in spades. The poem is deeply infused with Gray's lingering grief for his friend Richard West, whose death elicited a heartbroken sonnet.
The poetic legacy of Gray's Elegy is long-lasting and deep. Leaving aside contemporary imitations and Shelley's dreadful A Summer Evening Churchyard, the influence is clear in Tennyson's In Memoriam and in Browning's very different Love Among the Ruins; Hardy's graveyard poems are clearly in the tradition; and there are echoes of Gray in Eliot's Four Quartets, especially Little Gidding.
And then there is Richard Wilbur. His fine three-part meditation This Pleasing Anxious Being takes its title, and more, from the Elegy - but it was Wilbur's In A Churchyard that sent me back to Gray and set me on this train of thought. Here it is - a poem that addresses Thomas Gray directly (and in his own cross-rhymed quatrains), quotes the Elegy directly, and reworks its themes, playing a differently-angled light on its images and thoughts, to brilliant effect. Gray's Elegy lives on...
That flower unseen, that gem of purest ray,
Bright thoughts uncut by men:
Strange that you need but speak them, Thomas Gray,
And the mind skips and dives beyond its ken,
Finding at once the wild supposed bloom,
Or in the imagined cave
Some pulse of crystal staving off the gloom
As covertly as phosphorus in a grave.
Void notions proper to a buried head!
Beneath these tombstones here
Unseenness fills the sockets of the dead,
Whatever to their souls may now appear;
And who but those unfathomably deaf
Who quiet all this ground
Could catch, within the ear's diminished clef,
A music innocent of time and sound?
What do the living hear, then, when the bell
Hangs plumb within the tower
Of the still church, and still their thoughts compel
Pure tollings that intend no mortal hour?
As when a ferry for the shore of death
Glides looming toward the dock,
Her engines cut, her spirits bating breath
As the ranked pilings narrow toward the shock,
So memory and expectation set
Some pulseless clangor free
Of circumstance, and charm us to forget
This twilight crumbling in the churchyard tree,
Those swifts or swallows which do not pertain,
Scuffed voices in the drive,
That light flicked on behind the vestry pane,
Till, unperplexed from all that is alive,
It shadows all our thought, balked imminence
Of uncommitted sound,
And still would tower at the sill of sense
Were not, as now, its honed abeyance crowned
With a mauled boom of summons far more strange
Than any stroke unheard,
Which breaks again with unimagined range
Through all reverberations of the word,
Pooling the mystery of things that are,
The buzz of prayer said,
The scent of grass, the earliest-blooming star,
These unseen gravestones, and the darker dead.