Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory

This week’s poem is Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray which reminds us that regardless of our place in the world and the wealth and fame we might garner, there is one final destination for us all.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r
      And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
      The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Thomas Gray (1716—1771)

Poem 168. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
         The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
         And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
         And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
         And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
         The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
         Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
         The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
         No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
         Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
         Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
         Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
         How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
         Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
         The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
         And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
         The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
         If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
         The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
         Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
         Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
         Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
         Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
         Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
         And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
         The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
         And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
         The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
         Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
         The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
         And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
         Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
         And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
         To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
         With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
         Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
         They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
         The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
         That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
         This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
         Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
         Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
         Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.

For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
         Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
         Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
         “Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
         To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.

“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
         That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
         And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
         Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
         Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.

“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,
         Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
         Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

“The next with dirges due in sad array
         Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
         Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”


Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
       A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,
       And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
       Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
       He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
       Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
       The bosom of his Father and his God.

This is quite a long poem but I’m very fond of it because (like last week’s choice Adlestrop) it makes me think of a different age and also reminds me of the peace we can find in a country churchyard like our own at St. Andrew’s.

It also reminds me of an afternoon Nicola and I spent during our last holiday together in the Cotswolds. On our fourteenth and last wedding anniversary we walked from Bourton-on-the-Water to Lower Slaughter where we stopped at The Old Mill. From there we went on to Upper Slaughter where we had afternoon tea at the Lords of the Manor hotel after a pleasant stroll around the churchyard and a rest on a convenient bench.

Gray’s churchyard is set in a different place (Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire) but like so many great poems, it seems appropriate to many places.

It starts at the end of the day: we hear through the narrator’s ears the sound of the cows as the herder drives them across the meadow while the church bells ring to mark the end of the day. Once the cows have gone, all we can hear is the calls of owls from the church tower and the whirring of beetles.

The narrator then begins to muse on the residents of the churchyard, each in “his narrow cell” and then considers the impermanence of earthly life: how these people once strove to provide for their families by toiling at the plough or felling trees. Even though their lives were necessarily circumscribed, Gray asks himself, does that mean that they were less glorious than those who were famous? No, he concludes, even the most notable persons come to the same end: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave” and no fault can be laid at the memorials of humbler folk for the lowliness of their existence.

But for the workings of Fate, he observes, anyone might rise to rule an empire or bewitch the soul with music. This part of the poem brings us some lovely imagery:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
         The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
         And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

This reminds me very much of quatrain XIII of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Look to the Rose that blows about us—“Lo,
Laughing,” she says, “into the World I blow:
At once the silken Tassel of my Purse
Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw.”

The poet imagines that the churchyard might hold the bones of an obscure villager who stood against the tyranny of a landlord, an unknown poet whose verse might have been as famous as Milton’s or a man who could have risen to be a great general but whose inconsequential existence freed him of the charge of spilling his countrymen’s blood. John Hampden was a prominent politician who opposed Charles I’s arbitrary taxes. He was cousin to Oliver Cromwell and the king’s attempt to have him arrested in early 1642 caused the first English Civil War.

No, these people lived lives that were limited by their class and their expectations and their ambitions were likewise curtailed. Perhaps the most well-known phrase from the poem is, “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”, largely because Thomas Hardy used it for the title of his novel which is also largely set in a lowly farming community.

Even though these lives went unnoticed by their peers and contemporaries, Gray says, they are recorded in the memorial stones which, crudely carved as they might be, nonetheless signal that they were esteemed in their lifetime and are remembered afterward.

Finally, the poet begins to moralise, saying that the common fate applies to the listener as much as to the narrator, and that someday they both will be carried to the churchyard to take up their own abodes, and the poem ends in an epitaph for the dead poet.