“Say, Poet, in what other Nation, / Shone ever such a Constellation” – The representation of Britain in Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, and Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’

When an author comes to write a piece of literature, there is a sense that it will usually be imbued with a sense of their surroundings; whether that be in a political, cultural or geographical sense. And as the author’s birthplace and the country they reside in, what greater influence than Britain itself? In both Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, and Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’, Britain is captured within the words of the poems; a snapshot of a moment in time, a document of the tensions and pleasures of the era. Both see the poets expressing their opinion on Britain, sometimes through thinly veiled metaphors, and in many cases far more explicitly. Do they see Britain as something to be proud of, a shining ‘Constellation’ inherently more valuable than any other nation in the world? Or is it a country of fading glory, slowly sinking into darkness?

Looking closely at the opening passage of Gray’s ‘Elegy…’, we can begin to get more of a sense of how Britain is represented in a literary format. ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day’ begins the poem, instantly establishing the overall mood for the poem; one of melancholy, mourning and limitation. There is the immediate sense that any former positivity is coming to an end, submitting to a ‘curfew’ imposed on the populace. The language of the opening line is focused around the sense of sound, and more specifically, the way it can create a shift in feeling. Gray describes the ‘toll’ and ‘knell’ of a bell, a sonic reminder that a former way of life is coming to an end, ushered in by a literal funeral knell. Whatever lied before is ‘parting’ from this world, leaving it behind to be replaced by a new way. Thus, this opening line shows how Gray sets up the conventions of the poem, stacking descriptive elements together to create an overriding sense of what Britain as a country feels like to him at the time of writing the poem.

As he goes on to describe the way ‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight’, we get a sense not only of how things are fading away, but a sense of immense longing from the poet of the ‘glimmering’ country of ages past. If we see Britain as a ‘shining constellation’, we must interpret as something transient and impermanent; its glorious light always ultimately giving way in time. Thus, we have the poem in many ways giving a sense of a battle between two regimes, an old one versus a new one. This could be taken as an allusion to the enclosure of land, rich aristocrats taking the former common land away from the farmers who had previously grazed their cattle on it for generations. Gray uses an owl as a symbol for the farmers, an animal traditionally associated with wisdom in classical mythology. The farmers represent the old way of things, full of the accumulated wisdom of the processes of farming built up over hundreds of years. Now forced off their land, Gray talks of how the new ways ‘molest her ancient solitary reign’. For Gray, there is something distinctly regal and valuable in the ‘reign’ of these humble people. The classical reference of the owl is also backed up by the use of the word ‘ancient’. Such is Gray’s indignation at the process of change that is occurring here, he presents it as a ‘molestation’, a physical rape of traditional values by the new order.

Equally, the poem can be seen as reference to rapidly increasing agricultural and industrial revolutions, the influence of cities and technology encroaching ever further onto rural life. The ‘Elegy…’ presents the image of an ‘ivy-mantled tower’, a visual metaphor for the battle between man and nature. The tower is a distinct man-made beacon amongst a natural landscape where even the plants are crawling up its walls in an attempt to pull it down. The clinical, mechanised nature of the city is seen as a direct contrast to the more frugal, natural ways of the country. The people in rural Britain are even depicted by Gray as becoming one with the earth when they die as he writes “Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap”. Here we are given an image of the soil as almost alive as it ‘heaves’ up and opens to receive the rotting corpses of the dead, just another element in the natural cycle of life.

If Gray’s ‘Elegy…’ masks its message in metaphor, Goldsmiths ‘The Deserted Village’ presents a far more explicit representation of Britain’s troubles. ‘A time there was, ere England’s griefs began’ claims Goldsmith, his statement almost startling in its grandiosity. These are troubles that effect the whole country, and whereas before everything was ‘wholesome’ and full of ‘innocence’, now ‘times are altered’. Even the word ‘altered’ seems mechanical, a brute force that is impossible to stand against. In this ‘new Britain’, ‘Trade’s unfeeling train / Usurp the land and dispossesses the swain’. Goldsmith cuts straight to the point, targeting his words at the aristocrats who are enclosing the land. Here we see the way Britain is becoming increasingly capitalist, a new world of ‘trade’ that is utterly ‘unfeeling’ and emotionless. In Goldsmith’s eyes, these aristocrats have no sense of morality as they displace families who have worked these lands for years; all they care about is money.

Goldsmith’s anger in the poem is so intense because of how beautiful and important he saw the former countryside of Britain as. For him, the essence of the natural beauty of home is being despoiled by the new regime. This sense of pride in one’s home, as displayed in the quotation in the question title: ‘Say, Poet, in what other Nation’, is present in ‘The Deserted Village’ too. The very first line of the poem begins with an exclamation of ‘Sweet Auburn!’ – here ‘Auburn’ is an idealised version of Goldsmith’s own upbringing in the rural village of Lissoy in Ireland. Such is his passion for this place he adds in an exclamation mark, just as the quotation in the question title capitalises ‘Nation’. In both cases, the sense of pride for the place one calls ‘home’ is clear. And by creating an idealised version of his own hometown, Goldsmith’s poem stands not only for his own situation – his ‘loveliest village of the plain’ – but also represents all of Britain.

An important element is not just in the two poems’ depiction of the large-scale picture of Britain as a whole, but also how both close in on the lives of the ordinary man and how they fit into this changing landscape. ‘The Deserted Village’ talks of ‘the labouring swain’, giving us a rather rough image of the people that inhabit this rural environment. Goldsmith is keen to highlight though that despite this life of hard, manual work, these people always remain cheered on by ‘health and plenty’. There is this romantic sense of natural vigour to everything they do, from work to play, as the youngsters dance: ‘And many a gambol frolicked o’er the ground’. This utopian image Britain is perfect in every way, every aspect of life full of energy and enjoyment. This is all now replaced by a horrific image of ruin, these same once-happy people now ‘trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand’. Their old way of life has been reduced to nothing by a larger, infinitively more powerful force.

Gray’s ‘Elegy…’ conveys a similar sense of energy, but in a far less romantic sense. The poem speaks of the lives of the country-folk as ‘pregnant with celestial fire’, full of the very essence of life-force and vigour. But the poem is quick to assert this against grim reality; ‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave’ – in Gray’s vision of Britain, no matter how enjoyable or grand your life might be, whatever path it might take, we all end up dead ultimately. It is a brutal truth that cannot be escaped. It does however have the effect of equalising every individual within the country, a theme Gray goes on to explore later in the poem.

Of those living the rural life, Gray describes, ‘Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, / Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.’ His theory is that just because someone is born in obscurity in some small village, it does not automatically mean they have little or no worth compared to those born to the new ‘higher’ way of living in the hustle and bustle of the cities. Gray uses famous figures from British history such as John Milton and Oliver Cromwell to illustrate that the next person of such greatness may indeed lie within one of these tiny villages, yet unknown to the country. It’s an image of untapped potential, a country of equality where figures of fame are just as likely to spring from this way of life as the established norm of places like London.

By tapping into this historical aspect, Gray is also able to express his opinion on these figures, clearly accusing Cromwell as being guilty of bloodshed on a country-wide scale. Here, Gray captures the essence of Britain as a nation with a past, present and future; all interlinked. Cromwell’s violence in the past serves as a lesson for those living in the present and now forms part of the ‘Elegy…’, Gray’s expression of his fears for the future. This notion of time is summed up in the final passages of the poem as we reach the epitaph. It is here that we realise that the author of the poem is dead, and we are in the future, looking back on his life. By ending the poem in this way, Gray re-inforces the natural feel of his vision of Britain; the very ground itself is personified as he says ‘Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth’. It is an almost reassuring image of death, the dead poet lying cradled by the soil, as a mother might do with a child. Goldsmiths presents a similar personified image of his surroundings in ‘The Deserted Village’ when he calls it ‘parent of the blissful hour’, like Gray, painting a picture of the surrounding land as a comforting parental force. Goldsmith continually addresses the land as if he is speaking to it; ‘thy glades’, ‘thy tangling walks’. To him, Britain is a distinct character that he knows intimately.

Thus, both poems are bolstered by their authors’ intense pride for their natural surroundings, and by association, Britain itself. They recognise that the country is in the process of dramatic change, new ways battling against the old, established order in a conflict that has already made a significant mark on both the landscape and its peoples. Whether in the form of a mourning lament for this change, as in Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, or the impassioned and political statement directed at the displacement of people of Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’, both poets capture a unique essence of what Britain was like at the time. In their eyes, Britain is this ‘shining constellation’ – and although this shine may manifest itself as joyous bliss or misery – as a country, its ability to provoke an emotional response is undeniable.

 

Bibliography

Day, Malcolm, 100 Characters from Classical Mythology (London: Barron’s Educational Series, 2007)

Gray, Thomas, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and Other Poems (London: Penguin Classics, 2009)

Greenblatt, Stephen, The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Middle Ages Through the Restoration and the Eighteenth Century (London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006)

Hill, Christopher, God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (London: Penguin, 1990)

Irving, Washington, The Life of Oliver Goldsmith (New York: International L&T Publishers, 2001)

Overton, Mark, Agricultural Revolution in England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Winstanley, Mike, ‘The Rural Exodus’, BBC History [http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/exodus_01.shtml] (accessed 11th December 2010)

‘The Book of Fifty Irish Writers’, BBC Northern Ireland, [http://www.bbc.co.uk/northernireland/learning/getwritingni/events/bookofirishwriters_11_15.shtml] (accessed 11th December 2010)

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“In the beginning was the word”. Indicating some problems with this “beginning” in critical terms.

The concept of a beginning is a complex notion; the concept of ‘the’ beginning an even more complex one. By beginning, something comes into being that wasn’t present before; but in the case of a singular beginning, the first instance of anything ever being created, what existed before? How can something begin if there is nothing for it to be created into? It is problems like this that surround the concept of the word and create difficulty whenever the sense of anything beginning is applied critically. Indeed, is there any sense of separation between something beginning gradually or in an instant?

So what then is implied when we consider this specific ‘beginning’? The statement is problematical firstly due to the fact we do not know whether the ‘beginning’ is a time, place or both. What we are told however is that in this specific time/location we can find ‘the word’. This brings with it further troubles, as reading ‘the word’ as a concept rather than a physical element, how can we in fact find it? A concept is an intangible subject, contained only within the minds of intelligent beings, so for this concept to exist in ‘the beginning’, surely physical beings of intelligence such as humans must also be present.

The way the statement counters this problem is by differentiating between ‘the beginning’ and ‘now’; the present state of things which differs from the earlier period the statement explicitly describes. In this regard, those capable of understanding the concept of ‘the word’ can now exist, looking back to ‘the beginning’ when they did not exist. Thus, ‘the word’ could exist independently of them, a thing in its own right, but only now given full meaning when it can be named and understood as something.

Applying this sense of ‘the beginning’ and ‘the word’ in a literary sense, we can take the statement to imply that in ‘the beginning’, a place and time before anything else was present, ‘the word’ was the first thing to come into being. The logic of this revolves around the fact that for anything else to truly ‘be’, it must be labelled with a name. For us to think of and comprehend something, our minds must have a name for it. Thus, we link it with a ‘word’ – in this regard, the concept of ‘the word’ had to be the original thing to exist.

The trouble is however, that the further this concept is analysed and attempted to be fully understood, the more problems arise; flaws in the logic of how the process works. Firstly, when ‘the word’ came into being, what decided it would be called ‘the word’? This process by which we name all other things must itself have been named. But also, in the statement’s scenario of ‘the beginning’ and ‘the word’, which existed first? Did they spring from the previous nothingness at the same time or did the beginning establish itself before the word followed shortly after? All these aspects matter because language, at its most base level represents a formula; the shaping of letters into words, sounds into language. It is a process of symbols and at the heart of every process must be rules. So if the concept of ‘the word’ is afflicted with problematic logic that stems from its very beginnings, its use as a system of communication is weakened.

In his essay From Codex to computer; or, presence of mind, David Scott Kastan explores many similar ideas, his argument centred around what format ‘the word’ finds itself put into in the modern age. An early passage presents the view that “How the words got there does not seem to cause a problem; it is where ‘there’ is that does.” So, in much the same way that we previously examined the concept of ‘the beginning’ as being a problematic place for words to exist, Kastan’s essay presents the idea that the existence of ‘the word’ in specific forms of media are problematic. Again, a specific ‘place’ is specified, and that when this place interacts with ‘the word’ things become troublesome – the two exist independently, but when brought together, conflict is created. Surely this goes against logic however as already highlighted, without the presence of ‘the word’ to label everything else, we could comprehend nothing else. In a sense, every other thing is indebted to ‘the word’.

Kastan’s statement is interesting as it explains that there is no such problem inherent in the idea of how the words come into being. Here, the words seem only to problematic once they are fully formed and within the ‘place’. This contrasts with the concept of the ‘beginning’, which by its very nature carries with it notions of timing and creation. On closer inspection however, Kastan’s statement carries another layer of meaning; it is not that there are no problems associated with the creation of the words, just that the process ‘does not seem to cause a problem’. This implies that there may in fact actually be a problem, but that it is hidden because it has either not been identified or it has been chosen to be ignored. This notion brings us to the second complication – who precisely are these problems being caused with?

This is important as Kastan’s statement links in with ideas of perception, and more specifically, a kind of selective viewing. The person or persons he talks of are choosing to find a problem only with the latter element Kastan proposes; the ‘there’ and not the ‘how’. Why is it that something becomes a ‘problem’? This links in again with the concept of ‘the beginning’ being problematic when applied in critical terms. In both cases, our individual mindsets evaluate a situation based on a number of criteria, and if it fulfils certain criteria, the situation then becomes a problem. But most importantly, it has become a problem because the person has chosen to see it that way. This lies at the crux of the argument – there are only two outcomes to the situation; either the thing is a problem, or it is not. There may be degrees of how problematic something is, but ultimately, it will always ‘be’ or ‘not be’ a problem – a specific ‘choice’ of one option from two, something that has been reached after some kind of internal evaluation.

The irony of course is that this evaluation and ultimate choice can only be reached through the use of words. Of course, these words may not be expressed on the page or through the means of language, but within our minds our thought process involves words to make sense of things. This entails an additional argument of what precisely is ‘the word’ as an entity? Can something like ‘the word’ exist both as a physical element and an intangible one? As already explored, this presents the question of how ‘words’ can exist in a empty, void-like ‘beginning’, but more specifically, it is another element explored by Kastan in his essay.

In his instance, the relationship between physical and intangible is one of a digital medium versus a ‘traditional’ paper based one. Kastan talks of ‘an electronic environment, the text existing only on a screen, or, more precisely and to the point, not existing but appearing on it, no longer a fixed but a fluid entity.’ Unpacking this extract from his essay, we see that Kastan primarily establishes a juxtaposition between two locations; the problematic ‘there’ that he previously picked out. On one hand is the immaterial ‘electronic environment’, on the other the ‘fixed’ notion of the printed page. Kastan’s word choice is important though, the former option is not just an ‘electronic’ medium, but an ‘environment’, a specific place. But how can an immaterial format comprised of nothing physical become somewhere that can be occupied by words? In this essence, we return to the situation of “In the beginning was the word”, but now replaced by “In the electronic environment was the word”. Do the words inhabit the electronic environment or is the environment comprised of the words themselves? Which came first? We are presented with the same set of problems and it is this notion of a ‘fluid’ environment that is so troublesome. Perhaps this is the very reason it is so problematic, it’s very fluidity making it so difficult to grasp in comparison to the traditional ‘fixed’ format.

As Kastan goes on to explain, in this environment, ‘the word’ does not actually exist, but only appears to exist. This links back not only to the idea of perception and selective viewing – we see the electronic text as ‘text’ because our minds chose to call it this – but also the concept of labelling. In this instance we have taken the labelling applied to ‘traditional text’ and applied it to this new medium of text. Now both electronic and traditional forms of text are specifically ‘text’. In both cases, the ‘text’ is still comprised of words, whether they be written on a keyboard and displayed on a computer screen, or written in ink on paper.

But what differentiates these two forms, and why is the difference so problematic? In the case of ink on paper, here the words have been physically manifested onto the paper – a physical product upon physical product combining into one finished product. A finished product that ‘exists’; it can be seen and touched and a definitive change has been brought about – the formerly blank piece of paper now contains writing. But in the case of the electronic medium, a computer screen is in constant flux. If the power to it is cut, all the words written on it will disappear, along with the ‘electronic’ page they were written on. If the text has been ‘saved’ then it can be recovered, but as Kastan outlines, any recovered electronic text will not be the original, it will merely be a reconstruction, a kind of clone of the first version. Kastan sums up the concept with a quotation from Michael Joyce: “Print stays itself, electronic text replaces itself.”

This sense of something inconstant weakens the concept of ‘the word’ as a definite entity – if something is continually changing, replacing itself and being remade, can it truly be seen as ‘words’ or ‘text’. Is it instead just something that looks like text, but is in fact not? Ultimately though, whether it is in fact text or not, it is still some kind of entity, and Kastan’s essay explores this – the sense of ‘itself’ picking out a specific object, something tangible, something that has been created. This brings us back to the concept of ‘the beginning, the start of something, when ‘the word’ was apparently created out of nothingness. The issue here is that the electronic text is not strictly being created; it is ‘replacing itself’. So in much the same way it is problematic to imagine a beginning due to the fact there must surely be something before ‘the beginning’ for it to be created into, the electronic text represents a constant renewal, a never-ending chain with no traditional ‘beginning’.

Kastan continues this theme with another quotation, this time from George Landow: “The reader always encounters a virtual image of a stored text, and not the original version itself”. It is this sense of ‘the original’ that again ties into the ‘the beginning’ and presents the core problem of its application in a critical sense. Can there ever truly be an ‘original version’, or will it always be constructed of other versions? As humans, our logic centres around the concept of ‘things’, named items, building blocks of rationality from which we can construct all other things. From the things we can see and touch in front of our eyes, to our thoughts; all of it is made up of words. The problem presents itself again; which comes first – the things we give names to, or the ‘name’ itself? Or perhaps the two are ultimately inseparable, a symbiosis where each part is utterly dependent on each-other.

 

Bibliography

Lodge, David, Nigel Wood, Modern Criticism and Theory (London: Longman, 2008)