ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCHYARD, a poem by Thomas Gray, often said to be the most popular piece of verse in the language. It is thought to have been begun at Stoke-Poges in 1742, resumed at Cambridge in 1749 and finished at Stoke in June of the next year. Gray at once sent a copy to his friend Horace Walpole, who showed it about. Early in February 1751 the poet received a letter from the editor of a magazine announcing the intention to print it. Gray thereupon through Walpole arranged for its publication by Dodsley on 16 Feb. 1751. Its success was instantaneous. Eleven editions were published in speedy succession, translations were made into Latin and into numerous modern languages, and parodies and imitations flooded the world. Subsequent reprintings, especially in anthologies, have secured for it an enormous circulation, and, although it has not escaoed the disparagement sure to be vented upon what is hackneyed, it has retained an unparalled hold upon public affection. It would be a rash critic who should attempt to deny classic rank to Gray and his best-known poem.
Three copies exist in Gray's handwriting, and a study of the readings and the suppressed stanzas, as well as of the poet's borrowings from himself and others, is a valuable exercise for the student of poetic style. Owing to the almost flawless felicity of the diction and to the ad mirable fitness of the pentameter quatrain to the purposes for which it was employed, there are but few of the 32 stanzas that do not yield some memorable phrase or line, many of which have become stock quotations, such as °The short and simple annals of the poor," and °Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife.'
As has been intimated, the 'Elegy,) through its own popularity due to its own excellence, has contributed to its own decline in favor among those exigent persons who feel that it is an offense against taste to praise what the masses like. A moment's thought, however, should convince even the most fastidious that the masses are right. The 'Eleiity) is not profound, or subtle, or exceptionally imaginative, or full of ravishing surprises in phrase and cadence. Had it been it would have failed of its purpose to express with consummate dignity and felicity the thoughts and feelings common to humanity in the presence of death and its monuments. The 'Elegy) is popular because the honest critic will confess that he could not improve it if he would and because the average reader has never thought it needed improvement. It is about as perfect a poem of pensive melan choly as the world can show, and if all its predecessors and successors in the so-called churchyard poetry were lost and it alone pre served it would suffice to voice practically all the pertinent reflections and emotions connected with °the great leveller." Consult editions of Gray's poems by Gosse, Rolfe, Bradshaw, Phelps, etc.