The poem opens with Gray creating a mood of despondency and sets the tone of melanchonic reflection by creating atmosphere of the churchyard by describing how after a long and tiring day ‘ploughman plods his weary way’ and ‘leaves the world to darkness and to me.’
In such an ambience, he plunges to deliberate upon the lives of modest forefathers of the hamlet which makes him understand the irrevocable nature of death : ‘Each in his narrow cell forever laid/ the rude forefather’s of the hamlet sleep’
It is a fact that neither any customary sounds of the morning like ‘The cock shrill clarion’ nor housewife’s ‘evening care’ shall arose these forefathers from their ‘lowly bed’ He recognises the simple life of those who lived colse to the soil sympathising over their fate with humanitarian enthusiasm.
The poet moves on with a tone of moralising advising the rich,high and the haughty not to mock at the simple joys of these men or belittle their unspectacular labour for death is the greatest leveller : 'The paths of glory lead but to the grave'.
No monuments or memorials were raised for these dead men, but what purpose do they serve? The ‘storied urn’ or ‘the animated bust’ cannot call the ‘fleeting breath'. The dead are unaffected by any exaggerated words of flattery.
Gray now expresses another convincing idea of the caliber of these village forefathers to prove their worth as groat administrators, musicians and orators which was suppressed owing to extreme poverty and lack of education : ‘ chill penury repressed their noble rage/And froze the genial current of the soul’.
However he does understand the distinct advantages of poverty and illuminates the brighter side of oblivion. Gray highlights the fact that the simple life of these men prevented them from committing crime and bloodshed which often accompany an individuals quest for power : 'Forbade to wade thossugh slaughter to a throne/And shut the gates of Mercy on mankind'.
The tombstones of these men carry awkwardly executed inscriptions of their names and ages. The idea of the natural desire of a human to be remembered after death is also discussed as a dying man largely relies on the love qnd sympathy of someone left living behind : ‘On some fond breast the parting soul relies/some pious drops the closing eye requires'.
The last few stanzas contain the self potrait of Gray and the technique of dramatic persona. We learn that how the poet used to greet sunshine from the top of the hill and that at noon time he used to stretch himself beneath a beech tree in a contemplative mood. He describes how someday he shall lie burried in same churchyard and some kindered soul shall inquire his fate.
The poem closes with the self written epitaph of Gray who reflects himself as a ‘Melancholy’ and scholarly person with a sympathetic and generous heart who shall with full confidence rest in 'The bosom of his father and his God’.
Gray’s ‘Elegy’ is deservedly popular, mainly owing to its universal appeal which finds an echo in every heart.
Take for instance take the initial idea of the poem of the irrevocability of death. The teaching stands true for all humans and the beauty of verse is enhanced by the vivid description of day to day happenings.
Consider again the obvious idea of death being no respects of birth or status. ‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave’ is a line on which a thoughtful reader lingers for several minutes for it embodies an universal truth.
A very striking idea is expressed in the following four lines which account for the moral of the elegy : ‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene/ The dark unfatham’d caves of the ocean bear/ Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/ And waste its sweetness upon the desert air’.
Thus, Dr. Johnson rightfully remarks about it : ‘(The Elegy) abounds in images which find a mirror in every heart and sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo’.