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A man climbs through rubble in the ancient city in Leptis Magna, Libya. (Scott Peterson via Getty Images)

Things Worth Remembering: Contemplating the Ruins

The 18th-century English poet Thomas Gray offers us a glimpse of a cemetery in the countryside—while urging us to ponder the finiteness of life.

Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” click below:

The elegy is one of the great poetic idioms, and it is worth lingering on, because almost all poets have. The ancient Greeks wrote them, as did the Romans. In English, the elegiac tone is one of the most instantly recognizable styles. 

Indeed, I’m warning you that things are about to get very English.

One of the things I love about the canon of poetry is the way in which it sings across centuries, so that a particular tone or form can be used in one century and then again many centuries later. 

For instance, the poetry of Housman did not emerge out of a vacuum. There was already a fine tradition, not just of the poetic form that he wrote in but the sad music he employed. The most obvious predecessor for the wistfulness—you might even say nostalgia—was probably Thomas Gray and his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”

There was a time when this poem would have been in almost every English school child’s head—one of those poems that people knew even if they didn’t otherwise know much, or any, poetry. Gray’s poem, composed from 1750 to 1751, positively smells of the English countryside, provides one of the most gentle memento mori I know, and is made infinitely easier to remember because it has the ABAB rhyme scheme (that is, each alternative line rhymes).

The opening places us immediately in a time and place at once specific and universal:

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. 

Gray’s poem has that memorability and quotability that authors, among others, love. When writers are hunting for titles for their novels, they often raid Shakespeare. Indeed the satirist Craig Brown once noted that perhaps the only line in Shakespeare never to have been used as the title of a novel or film is a line from Timon of Athens (“To Lacedaemon did my land extend”). It’s not much of an exaggeration. 

But after Shakespeare, Gray is one of those poets whom authors come to looking for a title. Among others, Gray’s “Elegy” gave Thomas Hardy the title of one of his novels, thanks to the line “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.”

The main point of Gray’s “Elegy” is not to mourn any one individual, but to remind the reader—as Hamlet also does—of the way of all flesh. For example, there is the beautiful stanza:

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. 

What is the purpose of all this? Essentially, Gray simply gives the reader a thought, a consideration, that every well-lived life should ponder. The Anglo-Saxons had a single word for this thought: it translates into modern English as “the contemplation of dust.” 

The point is that contemplating the end of things, the ruins, including human ruins, is an activity worth engaging in—not to be morbid or to become depressed, but to do a very human thing, to ensure that we use well the time that we have.

It is so easy to be distracted or diverted in our lives. Eliot writes about the former, Larkin about the latter. And that distraction, or diversion, can mean that we end up going through life without really noticing that it is going by. The comedian Norm Macdonald once said that the only advice an older man can give a younger one is to tell them that it goes fast—so fast. The tragedy is that the younger man never believes the older one.

Yet poets can push us to remember this, by meditating on those who have gone. That way, we can remember not just how fleeting this all is, but how easy it is to come in and out of life, not only without being noticed, but without much noticing it. 

To contemplate the dust is to get at least a step closer to avoiding that, and by avoiding it, to live our lives more fully. By contemplating an English country churchyard, Gray reminds us not just that we must die, but that we must live.

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. 

Douglas will be back in your inbox next week. His last essay was about Raymond Carver’s short poem “Late Fragment.” 

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