By Thomas Gray
Thomas Gray's lines captured my imagination years ago:
The boast of heraldy, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e're gave
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
This brief stanza is beautiful and telling, but not the only memorable line of this enduring and memorable poem:
Full many a Flower is born to blush unseen
And wast its sweetness on the desert Air.
And then he writes this:
He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a Tear.
He gained from Heav'n' twal all he wish'd, a Friend.
Thomas Gray (1716-1779) began "Elegy in a Country Church-Yard" in 1742, but it sat dormant until his Great Aunt, Miss Mary Antrobus, died suddenly at sixty-six in 1949. Apparently her death stirred his poetic musings. According to the novelist Hugh Walpole (1884-1941), who wrote the introduction to Gray's poem for the 1951 edition I own, tradition holds he picked up the work in 1949 and completed it on June 12, 1750. It's theme, writes Walpole:
is the imminence to every human soul alive of the mystery of Death and the deep truth that this conclusion to all human endeavor has no regard for place or power, fame or obscurity.
Gray's Elegy contains the Solomonic reality of Ecclesiastes ("vanity of vanity, all is vanity") without Solomon's concluding reality as to where vanity ends and real life begins (see Ecclesiastes 12).