Thomas Gray & the Hermit Tradition

February 16: On this day in 1751, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a CountryChurchyard” was published. Gray was a reclusive gentleman-poet and he didnot write many poems, but this one brought him immediate fame and became themost reprinted poem of the 18th century. Written when England was on theup-slope of its mercantile and imperial power, the “Elegy” is atribute to those country folk who chose other than “to wade through slaughterto a throne” or to “heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride”:

Far from the maddingcrowd’s ignoble strife,

Their sober wishes neverlearn’d to stray;

Along the cool sequester’dvale of life

They kept the noiselesstenor of their way.

Thomas Hardy borrowed thetitle of his first major book from this passage, and a long list of novels andpaintings have been titled from other passages. More fundamentally, Gray andhis “Elegy” are central to the 18th century’s idealizationof rusticity and reclusion, and its related obsession with sensibility. Asdocumented in Isabel Colegate’s A Pelicanin the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaires and Recluses (2003), these fadscould lead to some odd behavior. Lord Harcourt, a British diplomat and general,was so determined to create a landscaped retreat around his new villa inOxfordshire that he had the entire village of Nuneham Courtenay moved a miledown the road. Then Harcourt kindly invited the displaced villagers back for afeast, and a lesson in rural living:

There were two pictures onthe lawn, one showing an idyllic cottage scene, withclean little children playing peacefully on the doorstep while the housewifeplied her spinning wheel, and the other depicting a miserable and dilapidatedhovel, with dirty children neglected by a slatternly housewife. The deferentialvillagers bedecked the first with flowers and the second with nettles, urged onby their benevolent landlords, who then presented awards for virtue andindustry. Later on the most deserving villagers were visited, and granted a redM for Merit to put in their windows.

Lord Harcourt had aportrait of Gray in the study of his villa, and the villa itself is just downthe motorway from Stoke Poges, the village upon which Gray based his poem andin which he is buried. But Lord Harcourt’s most famous connection to 18th-centurypoetry is through Oliver Goldsmith, who based “The Deserted Village”upon the forced desertion orchestrated by m’lord.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.