Sunday, 1 January 2012

Gray's 'Elegy' has first principles for modern readers

I decided to start the new year with first principles. We talk a lot about 'progressive' politics but usually little think of how such terminology came to be commonplace, or how the values inherent in it developed through the jumbled thickets of history. One place to look for signs of these developments is in literature, and so I took it into my head to pay attention to one of the most famous forgotten poems in English, Thomas Gray's Elegy written in a Country Churchyard. Published in 1751 in London, the 'Elegy' was a quick sensation but Gray is a shadowy figure, now, since the later-risen Romantics have stolen for themselves the focus of our anterior regard, by which means they have made their style of poetry even our own. So let's say that 1751 was a watershed year in English letters. But of far greater relevance to us, now, is the year 1798 when Lyrical Ballads, the product of the collaboration between William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was published.

In two generations the world had changed radically. First, in 1759, Montreal fell to the British. Once the threat of French aggression had been removed from their northern frontier, the American colonists were in a very much better position to convert words into action, leading to the revolution of 1776. That shift in secular power was the spark that would ignite France as well and, in 1789, there was another, bigger revolution in Europe. The main taproots of modern Western culture are anchored in these strife-torn years; we are still children of the revolution, if you will. It's here that music, for example, shifts from the polite formalism of the classical mode embodied in the work of such composers as Handel and Mozart, to the agonised outpourings of Beethoven and Shubert. Literature would never be the same again. Music would be forever different. The world had changed forever. Wordsworth and Coleridge were lucky to be alive in this brave new world. But who did these two footsoldiers of Modernism read when they were growing up? Of course they read Gray. Here he is in an audio recording; it takes about 11 minutes to play:

Everyone read Gray. So I thought it was meet, in this new year, to look back. 'Elegy' itself is looking back: a man stands alone before a plain country churchyard and surveys the remnants of the dead, and thinks deeply upon that which the poor have in common with those who are more routinely celebrated in literature. Their only fault, he says, was to be poor. This focus on the ordinary in preference to the more usual subjects of writers of his day is one thing that Gray has in common with the Romantics, who were inspired by talk of the rights of man coming from a hundred different pens, in Europe and in America. But there's more. In the recording take note of the first three stanzas and the imagery he uses. It is sombre, dark and mysterious. Here we see a Romantic sensibility emerging - just for a moment! - within the glossy confines of an Augustan poem. Modernism's taproots might yet mainly lie buried solidly in the 1790s, but some deep strands go further and discover a rich lode of nourishment in a poem published in the 1750s.

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