“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)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s