'Three Cheers for Mute Ingloriousness!'

Gray's Elegy in the Poetry of John Clare

in Critical Survey
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Samuel Johnson considered that Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard ‘abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo’. Roger Lonsdale argues that it ‘produces fewer or more complicated echoes in the bosoms of modern readers than in those of earlier generations’, but it is not just the Doppler effect of the passing centuries that complicates responses. The Elegy has always been a conduit for diverse needs and aspirations. When General Wolfe famously declared on the eve of the Battle of Quebec that he would rather have written the Elegy than capture the city, he was enlisting its patriotic potential, or perhaps using it in the manner of Roman generals at their victory parades, to whisper in his ear, ‘remember, you are mortal’. For the nineteenth-century pioneers of the trade union movement the Elegy was a radical text which made their struggles poetic, and their banners often quoted the lines about the Village-Hampden who ‘with dauntless breast / The little tyrant of his fields withstood’.

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