‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ and other poems, Thomas Gray
Greville Press Pamphlets, 2017 £7.50
Reading Thomas Gray today
I found it quite strange, opening up this pamphlet of poems by Thomas Gray, selected by Anthony Astbury. It’s not that I’m not used to Selecteds but this group is so small, and printed in this modest pamphlet, it’s as though it is contemporary. New poems, hot off the press….
The result is a kind of freshness. I come to them as though I’ve never before encountered them. Turns out, of course, they feel perfectly relevant – in this insane era of Trump and Twitter – telling, as they do, of ‘Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear, / And Shame that skulks behind’. Some things don't change. Or haven't yet.
‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’, which opens the pamphlet, vividly chronicles the ascent through ‘Ambition’, then fall via ‘Scorn’ ‘And grinning Infamy’ that we see played out in our celebrity-culture headlines every day:
To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another’s pain,
The unfeeling for his own.
Or take ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes’—
the title alone could stand for our times! You can just see that poor cat, reaching, craning, wanting – ‘With many an ardent wish, / She stretched in vain to reach the prize’; then, of course, inevitably, ‘tumbled headlong in’. (According to Wikipedia, Thomas Gray himself published only thirteen poems in his lifetime: excellent restraint!)
Finally, settle back for ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. No contemporary enjambment to disrupt you. Just four-line stanzas in iambic pentameter, rhyming abab. And the timeless message that we’re all heading to the same place, despite the clamour of our age. (My father, another Anthony, loved this poem, I remember. It feels fitting to be rereading it on what would have been his 90th birthday; he died in another era).
Here’s how it starts – in that ‘Country Churchyard’:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
You know you want to read on.