Intimations of Classical Notions of Time in Thomas Gray’s Early Poetry

Kirill Ole Thompson


The present study makes the case that Thomas Gray (1716-1771) presents his poetic musings in his early odes and sonnet against the backdrop two classical conceptions of time, cyclical time and linear time, and this casts interpretive light on his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Gray’s early poems (1742)—Ode on the Spring, Ode to a Distant Prospect of Eton College, and Sonnet on the Death of Richard West— open with pastoral scenes set in cyclical time as foils for ruminations about human existence in linear time. He goes from adopting a pastoral pose and viewing human life as a brief flutter in the Spring ode, to casting shadows over the pastoral scenes in the Eton ode, to lamenting the pastoral in his Sonnet. Gray’s evolving view of life in linear time informs the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1750). The twilight opening of this poem contrasts with the morning openings of the early poems. Falling darkness throws the poet back into his private musings; the glimmering; darkening landscape stirs him to reflect on mortal truths. The Elegy closes with a forlorn pastoral poet whose Muse does not arrive to offer him access to redemptive cyclical time: who is this poet? Is it Gray? Is it Gray in youth? What is the message? In a later poem, Hymn to Adversity, Gray sees the possibility of rebirth and meaning in human life in linear time.


classical allusion, pastoral, elegy, mortality, meaning of life

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