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For who, to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
E'en from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
For thee,81 who, mindful of th' unhonored dead,
If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,
Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away,
"There at the foot of yonder nodding beech,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch, And pore upon the brook that babbles by.
30. This is one of the difficult stanzas, and there is some dispute as to its exact meaning, owing to the phrase, to dumb forgetfulnesx a prey. Perhaps the correct meaning is shown in the following prose version: "For who has ever died (resigned this pleasing, anxious being, left the warm precincts of this cheerful day), a prey to dumb forgetfulness, and cast not one longing, lingering look behind?'
31 Thee refers to the poet, Gray himself. The remainder of the poem is personal. Summed up briefly it means that perhaps a sympathetic soul may some day come to inquire as to the poet's fate, and will be told by some hoary-headed swain a few of the poet's habits, and then will have pointed out to him the poet's own grave, on which may be read his epitaph.
"Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Now drooping, woful-wan, like one forlorn,
"One morn I missed him from the customed hill,
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
"The next, with dirges due,32 in sad array,
Slow through the churchway path we saw him borne.—
Approach and read, for thou canst read, the lay Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn."33
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth,
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere;
Heaven did a recompense as largely send: He gave to Misery, all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven ('twas all he wished) a friend.
32. Due means appropriate or proper.
33. As first written, the poem contained the following stanza, placed before the epitaph: but in the final revision Gray rejected it as unworthy. It seems a very critical taste that would reject such lines as these:
"There scatter'd oft, the earliest of the year,
No farther seek his merits to disclose,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose,)
THOMAS GRAY was born in London on the twentysixth of December, 1716, and received his education at Cambridge, where he lived most of his quiet life and where he died in 1771. He was a small and graceful man with handsome features and rather an effeminate appearance, always dressed with extreme care. The greater part of his life was spent in neatly furnished rooms among his books, for he was a hard student, and became noted as one of the first scholars of his time. Among his friends he was witty and entertaining, but among strangers, quiet and reserved, almost timid. He loved his mother devotedly, and after her death he kept her dress neatly folded in his trunk, always by him. Innocent, well-meaning, gentle and retiring, he drew many warm friends to him, though his great learning and his fondness for giving information made many people think him something of a prig.
It might be considered a weakness in the Elegy that it drifts into an elegy on the writer, who becomes lost in the pathos of his own sad end. Yet, knowing the man as we do, we can understand his motives and forgive the seeming selfishness. He is not the only poet whose own sorrows, real or imaginary, were his greatest inspiration.
The metre of the Elegy had been used, before Gray's time, by Sir John Davies for his Immortality of the Soul, Sir William Davenant in his Gondibert, and Dryden in his Annus MirabUis, and others; but in no instance so happily as here by Gray. In the Elegy the quatrain has not the somewhat disjunctive and isolating effect that it has in some other works where there is continuous argument or narrative that should run on with as few metrical hindrances as possible. It is well adapted to convey a series of solemn reflections, and that is its work in the Elegy.
By Robert Louis Stevenson
WENT down, and drank my fill; and then came up, and got a blink at the moon; and then down again. They say a man sinks the third time for good. I cannot be made like other folk, then, for I would not like to write how often I went down or how often I came up again. All the while, I was being hurled along, and beaten upon and choked, and then swallowed whole; and the thing was so distracting to my wits, that I was neither sorry nor afraid.
Presently, I found I was holding to a spar, which helped me somewhat. And then all of a sudden I was in quiet water, and began to come to myself.
It was the spare yard I had got hold of, and I was amazed to see how far I had traveled from the brig. I hailed her, indeed; but it was plain she was already out of cry. She was still holding together; but whether or not they had yet launched the boat, I was too far off and too low down to see.
1. This selection is from Kidnapped, the story of a young man, David Balfour by name, who, by the treachery of an uncle who has usurped David's right to the family estate and fortune, is taken by force on board a brig bound for the Carolinas in North America. In the Carolinas, according to the compact made between David's uncle and the captain of the brig, David is to be sold. He is saved from this fate by the sinking of the brig. The selection as here given begins at the point where David is washed from the deck into the sea. The Island of Earraid is a small, unimportant island off the coast of Scotland.