The Elegy in Thomas Gray and Shelley
LYRIC AND THE INNER LIFE COURSEWORK ‘Elegy is about mourning for one’s own condition’ Stuart Curran, ‘Romantic Elegiac Hybridity’, in The Oxford Handbook to Elegy (Oxford, 2010), ed. Karen Weisman, p. 249 Discuss Curran’s comment in relation to the work of Thomas Gray and Percy Bysshe Shelley. ‘One of the major tasks of the work of mourning and of the work of the elegy is to repair the mourner’s damaged narcissism'.
This quote by literary critic Peter Sacks, flourishes from Sigmund Freud’s model of primary narcissism which suggests that ‘we love others less for their uniqueness and separateness, and more for their ability to contract our own abundance, that is, to embody and reflect back that part of ourselves that we have invested in them'. Sacks expands this coalescence in his criticism of elegies such as Milton’s Lycidas and Tennyson’s In Memoriam.
Using this model of narcissism and literary mourning along with key aspects of history, language and critical reviews, I will explicate how an ‘elegy is about mourning for one’s own condition in Thomas Grays’ Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard and Percy Shelley’s Adonais, Before delving straight into how the poems serve as elegies to the poets themselves, I will first discuss how the poems appear and attempt in their best capacity not to do so.
Samuel Johnson famously commented on Gray’s Elegy saying that ‘The Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo'. The portrayal of such a literary universality springs from the poem’s apparent mourning of the common man. Gray laments a ubiquitous sense of mortality, paying homage to the archetypical ‘weary plowman' who falls prey to ‘dumb Forgetfulness’ (85) and lies forgotten in his ‘lowly bed’ (20).
This notion that the poem ‘is life in its most general form, reinterpreted so as to speak to mankind generally, where all men are comparable and consciousness seeks a universal voice' can be understandably gathered from a superficial analysis of the poem. The poem is not just an elegy, but a pastoral elegy, a literary form that encompasses idyllic rustic life with death, a technique employed by Gray to enhance his mournful depiction of the common, simple man who labours away unfulfilled only to die unremembered.
Phrases such as ‘mopeing owls’ (10), ‘twitt’ring swallows’ (18) and ‘ecchoing horns’ (19) create the image of a bucolic and generic place, one where villagers engage in rural and generic activities – ‘oft did the harvest to their sickle yield’ (25) and ‘how bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke’ (28) The constant use of third person plural pronouns such as ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘them’ allow the reader to merge these villagers into one, once again echoing the universality of the poem.
Although the title tries to deliver a place for the poem, ambiguous descriptions such as ‘the glimmering landscape’ (5), ‘the distant folds’ (8), ‘the upland lawn’ (100) and the ‘custom’d hill’ (109), accentuate the poem’s attempt to be nowhere and everywhere. Marshall Brown in his essay Gray’s Churchyard Space’ suggests that “everything and nothing is shared with all and none in a world that is nowhere and everywhere”.
This displacement coupled with the fact that the poem refers to no one in particular, creates a sense of timelessness in keeping with it’s universality, thereby supporting Johnson’s credo that ‘The Churchyard finds a mirror in every mind'. Marshall Brown further reveals that the ‘poem evokes the possibility of a language and a consciousness beyond station, beyond definition and beyond identity'.
Gray accomplishes this by the illustration of an all-encompassing world. The poem drifts from a ‘solemn stillness’ (6) to the ‘cock’s shrill clarion’ (19), from a ‘blazing hearth’ (21) to a ‘frozen soul’ (52), from ‘parting day’ (1) to the ‘incense-breathing morn’ (16), from the ‘desert air’ (56) to the ‘smiling land’ (63), etc; creating an image of the world that comprises all heights, weather, feelings and time.
Gray’s exploration of the opposite poles of class, the ‘pomp of pow’r’ (33) and ‘simple annals of the poor’ (32), and his empathy for the poor rather than the rich – ‘nor you, ye Proud, impute to These the fault, if Mem’ry o’er their Tomb no Trophies raise’ (37-38), heightens this indiscriminate sense of inclusion and the all-embracing voice of his elegy. Thus we see how Gray tries to attribute a sensitivity that amplifies the appeal of his apparently universal elegy, as seen by this uote from Stephen Cox’s essay, Contexts of Significance: Thomas Gray – that ‘the individual self [in the Elegy] is significant even when it lacks any visible signs of significance, such as power, wealth, or social recognition'. Thus, we see how it can be interpreted that Thomas Gray’s elegy focuses on a common condition rather than his own, but a closer analysis reveals that the all-embracing attempts made by Gray in the poem is part of a manipulation to create an image that adequately appeases his own narcissism.
Firstly, although he paints a generic and timeless world he also places himself far away from it. The poem is seeped in an isolation that springs from Gray’s differentiation of himself from the world he’s creating – ‘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’ (1-4). From the start of the poem itself we are plummeted into the poet’s segregation from the rural, rustic all encompassing world, and into the image he creates of himself as the poetic lonely outsider.
Wallace Jackson in his essay Thomas Gray and the Dedicatory Muse, supports this when he says that ‘Gray’s ideal self is situated like a melancholic outcast and the village oddity. He is constellated in a poetic heaven, in any event, alone'. While Gray spends the first 23 stanzas expounding his sensitivity for the ‘unhonored Dead’ (93), the next 9 stanzas are wholly based on him and the image he tries to further enhance of his ‘mindful’ (93) and ‘lonely’ (95) self.
Howard Weinbrot in his essay Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, points out that ‘no one in particular is being mourned as the elegy opens, but it soon become clear that the speaker is mourning his own repressed potential'. The shift between referring to himself as ‘me’ (4) in the 1st stanza to ‘thee’ (93) at the start of the 23rd stanza, elucidates a respect he demands for his shallow efforts to praise the common man.
Andrew Dillon in his essay Depression and Release, includes a reference by Ketton-Cremer, Gray’s biographer – ‘the man of reading and reflection often feels an envious admiration for the man of physical skill', and this is seen in the parallels Gray draws between himself and the villagers, who in death resemble the same ‘fame and fortune unknown’ (118) of Gray. However, he shatters this connection through his elaborate and verbose epitaph for himself.
While the simple ‘bones’ (77) of the forgotten ‘plowman’ (3) rests beneath ‘some frail memorial erected nigh’ (78), Gray’s memorial is far from ‘frail’ – ‘Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere’ (121). Jackson confirms this in his essay, when he says that the poem’s ‘motive is grounded in a further, yet concealed, rendering of the self-image, present especially at the close of The Elegy'. Freud’s belief that melancholia is a consistent form of mourning can be seen in his epitaph for himself – ‘melancholy marked him for her own’ (120) and ‘he gave to misery all he had’ (123).
This coupled with the undercurrent of still sadness that permeates the poem places Gray in a constant state of mourning. On a simplistic level, the epitaph echoes his application of a universal mortality unto others and himself, but what is more haunting is the thread of fatalism that laces these last few stanzas. Dillon writes, ‘the Elegy can be read as a journey of recognition conceived in dusk and worked out – not in a miasma of depression – but in the light of symbolic self-destruction'. The quiet acceptance Gray achieves seems to transcend the idea of everyman’s mortality, and is rather an active realisation of his own.
In the line ‘Ev’n from the tombs the voice of Nature cries, ev’n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires’ (91-92), Gray moves away from the constant grouping of the villagers (they, their and them) to include himself (‘in our ashes’) tilting the poem towards his own self-destruction. Dillon explores this in his essay when he contemplates ‘whose ashes are these? They are those of the safe dead, yet they also form a melancholic, personal estimation of the poet – alive but in the ashes of an entombed self'. Thus we see that Gray is aware of the image he is creating of his own condition.
His reference to himself in third person in the words of the Swain divulges his yearning for a posthumous sympathy. This along with his concern with the way he is perceived, his reconstruction of himself in death and his self-appointed social position in his glorious epitaph, all seal the idea that in fact he is trying to repair a ‘damaged narcissism' and in doing so is ‘mourning his own condition'. Unlike Gray, whose poem appears to mourn the common man, Shelley’s Adonais remembers one man in particular – John Keats. However, this specificity does not detract from the idea that, similar to Gray, Shelley’s elegy is intwined ith his own condition as well. The disquieting refrain ‘weep for Adonais – he is dead! ‘ is instrumental in diverting the readers attention from Shelley onto Keats, constantly reiterating the idea that the elegy is about Adonais – a name he assigned to Keats that amalgamates the Greek myth of Adoni, and Adonai, the Hebrew word for God. However, our first instinct that the poem isn’t just about Keats springs from its historical background. Shelley, upon hearing of Keats death, was convinced that Keats was killed by the envenomed reviews of Keats’ longest poem, Endymion.
This belief is reflected in the classical allusion to Adoni, a youthful man who met an early and untimely death when he was killed by a wild boar, an event symbolic of Keats’ apparent death by cruel reviews. In Nicholas Roe’s Keats and History, he reveals that on the 8th of June 1821, Shelley requested his publisher Charles Ollier to ask Keats’ friends the exact circumstances of his death, and ‘transmit to me any information you may be able to collect and especially as to the degree in which, as I am assured, the brutal attack in the Quarterly Review excited the disease by which he perished'.
Roe uses this letter to suggest that although this request ‘may arise from Shelley’s characteristic attention to historical detail’, it also reflects something else: an appetite for a history already conceived, a history the outlines of which applied to Shelley himself, for the Quarterly had also taken aim at his poetry and character', thus proposing that Shelley’s own wounded narcissism is tied to his portrayal of Keats’ death.
Stanza 37 of Adonais reveals this bitterness towards the critics – ‘And ever at thy season be thou free to spill the venom when thy fangs o’erflow: remorse and contempt shall cling to thee! ‘ (329-31). Shelley, who even now is closely associated with Keats, was an avid admirer of Keats’ work. The godly portrayal of Keats in his poem reveals this reverence – Shelley calls him a ‘star’ (494) and places him in league with Thomas Chatterton, Sir Philip Sidney and Marcus Lucan, poets who died young and never received the chance to flourish to the maximum of their literary prowess.
Though Shelley considered himself a lesser poet, he felt they shared a common thread. In regard to Adonais, he is known to have written, ‘the total neglect and obscurity in which the astonishing remnants of his mind lie, was hardly to be dissipated by a writer, who, however he may differ with Keats in more important qualities, at least resembles him in that accidental one, the want of popularity'.
This connection that Shelley felt they had explains his outrage at the critics’ reviews, as they dashed the growing popularity of Keats and Shelley many a time. Eleanor Hutchens in her essay Cold and Heat in Adonais says ‘the earlier part of Adonais suffers from an artificial chill, cast over perhaps by Shelley’s primary intention not of mourning Keats but of using a fellow poets death as an occasion for expressing certain attitudes of his own'.
This belief isn’t entirely true; although it is certain that Shelley uses Keats’ death to battle the critics that scorned them, there is a significant difference in the two acts – that of mourning and that of expressing his opinions – as they are inevitably and exclusively related with each other, as seen in Clewell’s credo that ‘By resuscitating the other in memory, the mourner attempts to reclaim a part of the self that has been reflected on to the other'.
To Shelley, Keats is a part of him and he is a part of Keats, as seen when he says ‘I have lately been composing a poem on Keats, it is better than anything I have yet written, and worthy both of him and of me'. Shelley believes that in writing the elegy and in mourning Keats they are both experiencing a sense of liberation and resolution.
This idea is seen in the first stanza itself when Shelley says ‘with me died Adonais’ (6-7) and recurs throughout the poem, especially in stanza 34 when Shelley describes one of the mourners at Keats’ grave – ‘All stand aloof, and at his partial moan smiled through their tears; well knew that gentle band who in another’s fate now wept his own’ (300). In the case of Shelley’s elegy, the major disquietude of its reflection on his own condition lies in the fact that it acts as elegy for him without meaning to.
It transcends Shelley’s narcissistic intentions, echoing beyond even the time of composition. In Roe’s Keats and History he says that ‘Indeed one of the posthumous fates of Adonais itself was its retrospective (or uncannily prophetic) application to Shelley'. Adonais was an elegy for Shelley himself in that it foreshadowed his own early and untimely death. Peter Sacks stated that ‘Shelley’s conclusion to the poem is ‘profoundly disturbing’ when we remember, as we must, that Shelley died a year later at sea'.
Some believe his death wasn’t accidental and a product of years of depression that lead to his eventual self-destruction, a theory perhaps encouraged by the suicidal tone in the last stanzas of Adonais – ‘What Adonais is, why fear we to become? ‘ (459). But whether this is true or not, Shelley’s association with Keats is undeniable, especially considering that a book of Keats’ poems was found in the pocket of Shelley’s jacket that confirmed the corpse was his.
After Shelley’s death, his wife Mary is known to have said ‘Adonais is not Keats’s, it is his own elegy' and his dear friend Leigh Hunt confirmed that Shelley himself said the poem was ‘more an elegy on himself than the subject of it'. Shelley’s cousin, Thomas Medwin beautifully wrote in Memoir that ‘there was, unhappily, too much similarity in the destinies of Keats and Shelley: both were victims of persecution, both were marked out by the envenomed shafts of invidious critics, and both now sleep together in a foreign land'.
Thus, we see how both poems reflect a situation stemming from the poet’s own condition. While Andrew Dillon believed that ‘the Elegy works because of the exquisite beauty of its language and the psychic complicity of the minds of readers with that of Thomas Gray', critic Katherine Duncan-Jones felt that ‘Adonais is fundamentally an elegy on one poet by another, a poem whose force comes more from the problems and concerns of the living poet, than from the precise character and circumstance of the dead one'.
Both poems exhibit a damaged narcissism that the poets try to appease or console through the act of mourning, whether it is Gray’s desire to be remembered in a perfect melancholic image of himself, or Shelley’s to chastise the embittered critical reviews that plagued his career and Keats’. However, the sense of isolation, fatalism and admiration in their poems evokes a posthumous and timeless sympathy in readers that cannot be disregarded, particularly in the case of Shelley, even if we are aware that they mourn themselves. Bibliography:
Bieri, James, Percy Bysshe Shelley: a Biography (Massachusetts: Rosemont Publishing, 2005) Brown, Marshall, “Gray’s Churchyard Space”, in Preromanticism (California: Stanford University Press, 1991), pp. 42-8. Clewell, Tammy, ‘Mourning Beyond Melancholia: Freud’s Psychoanalysis on Loss’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association, 52. 1(2004), p. 46-48. Cox, Stephen, “Contexts of Significance: Thomas Gray”, in The Stranger within Thee: Concepts of Self in Late-Eighteenth Century Literature (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1980), pp. 2-98. Curran, Stuart, ‘Romantic Elegiac Hybridity’, Oxford Handbook to Elegy (Oxford: Oxford Printing Press, 2010) Dillon, Andrew, “Depression and Release”, North Dakota Quarterly, 60. 4 (1992), pp. 128-34. Duncan-Jones, Katherine, “The Review of English Studies”, New Series, 22. 86 (1971), p. 75-171. Gray, Thomas, Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard: with the complete works of Thomas Gray (Virginia: Peter Pauper Press, 1947) Hutchens, Eleanor, “Cold and Heat in Adonais”, Modern Language Notes, 76. 2 (1961), p. 24. Hurtz, Neil, The End of the Line (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009) Jackson, Wallace, “Thomas Gray and the Dedicatory Muse”, ELH, 54. 2 (1987), pp. 277-98. Roe, Nicholas, Keats and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Selected Prose and Poetry of Shelley (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994) Weinbrot, Howard, “Restoration and the Eighteenth Century”, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 18. 3 (1978), pp. 537-551. ———————– 1]Tammy Clewell, ‘Mourning Beyond Melancholia: Freud’s Psychoanalysis on Loss’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association, 52. 1(2004), p. 48. Clewell, p. 46. Stuart Curran, ‘Romantic Elegiac Hybridity’, Oxford Handbook to Elegy (Oxford: Oxford Printing Press, 2010), p. 249. Neil Hurtz, The End of the Line (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 73. Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard: with the complete works of Thomas Gray (Virginia: Peter Pauper Press, 1947), line 3 (all subsequent references will be made in the body of the text). 6]Marshall Brown, “Gray’s Churchyard Space”, in Preromanticism (California: Stanford University Press, 1991), pp. 42-8. Brown, pp. 42-8. Hurtz, p. 73. Brown, pp. 42-8. Stephen Cox, “Contexts of Significance: Thomas Gray”, in The Stranger within Thee: Concepts of Self in Late-Eighteenth Century Literature (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1980), pp. 82-98. Wallace Jackson, “Thomas Gray and the Dedicatory Muse”, ELH, 54. 2 (1987), pp. 277-98. 12]Howard Weinbrot, “Restoration and the Eighteenth Century”, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 18. 3 (1978), pp. 537-551. Andrew Dillon, “Depression and Release”, North Dakota Quarterly, 60. 4 (1992), pp. 128-34. Jackson, pp. 277-98. Dillon, pp. 128-34. Dillon, pp. 128-34 Clewell, p. 48. Curran, p. 249. Percy Shelley, The Selected Prose and Poetry of Shelley (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994), line 1 (all subsequent references will be made in the body of the text). 20]Nicholas Roe, Keats and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 23. Roe, p. 23. Roe, p. 33. Eleanor Hutchens, Cold and Heat in Adonais, Modern Language Notes, 76. 2 (1961), p. 124. Clewell, p. 47. Roe, p. 33. Roe, p. 36. Katherine Duncan-Jones, “The Review of English Studies”, New Series, 22. 86 (1971), p. 75. James Bieri, Percy Bysshe Shelley: a Biography (Massachusetts: Rosemont Publishing, 2005), p. 239. Bieri, p. 239. Roe, p. 36. Dillon, p. 128-34. Jones, p. 171.