February 16, 1751 — “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard” was published today by Thomas Gray (December 26, 1716 – July 30, 1771) — an English poet, letter-writer, classical scholar and professor at Cambridge University.
Completed in 1750, the poem’s origins are unknown, but it said to have been inspired by Gray’s thoughts following the death of the poet Richard Westin in 1742.
Originally titled, “Stanzas Wrote in a Country Church-Yard,” the poem was completed when Gray — an English poet, letter-writer, classical scholar and professor at Cambridge University — was living near St Giles’ parish church at Stoke Poges.
It was sent to his friend Horace Walpole, who popularised the poem among London literary circles. Gray was eventually forced to publish the work on 15 February 1751, to pre-empt a magazine publisher from printing an unlicensed copy of the poem.
Claimed as “probably still today the best-known and best-loved poem in English,” the Elegy became popular. It was printed many times and in a variety of formats, translated into many languages, and praised by critics even after Gray’s other poetry had fallen out of favour.
Later critics tended to comment on its language and universal aspects, but some felt the ending was unconvincing, failing to resolve the questions the poem raised; or that the poem did not do enough to present a political statement that would serve to help the obscure rustic poor who form its central image.
Words of Wisdom for February 16, 2017
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.
— Thomas Gray, author of the beloved poem on death, "Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard," 1751