Gray: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751)
Augustan pastoral had usually idealised and ‘neo-classicised’ the country: the actual condition of rustics had been ignored for an Arcadian idyll in which nature was ‘wrought up to an higher pitch’ (Dryden). Gray, it must be said, was not the first to describe some of the realities of rustic life in poetry, but he was one of the first ‘civilised’ poets to do so, and certainly the first to put them at the centre of a major poem. With Gray we see also how, as in Thomson and Fielding, the urge to impose one’s vision upon external reality in an a priori manner is shifting to a more empirical approach whereby that reality is seen for what it is before the attempt is made to make sense of it. Gray’s poem had a special meaning for Johnson, who asked that ‘the occasion which is supposed to produce [pastoral] be at least not inconsistent with a country life’. If Johnson’s remarks are compared with those of Pope in his ‘A Discourse on Pastoral Poetry’ (1704), it can be seen how the standard has moved from decorum according to genre and intention, to decorum according to subject and nature: for Pope, pastoral well-written is a pleasure to the cultured and a delight to the well-mannered; for Johnson pastoral should not be ‘less likely to interest those who have retired into places of solitude and quiet than the more busy part of mankind’ (Rambler, no. 37).
KeywordsDust Toll Lost Metaphor Verse
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