‘Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard’ by Thomas Gray, ‘A Poison Tree’ by William Blake and ‘A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General’ by Jonathan Swift are all poems which address death from various perspectives and use various techniques to express this common theme. In this essay, I will investigate how these three poems treat their common theme, of death, in different ways to present a variety of the views that many may have of death. ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard’ examines death from the perspective of a stranger attempting to eternalise the lives of the deceased, common people, who otherwise would have been forgotten. ‘A Poison Tree’ explores the brewing emotions which influence a person to murder and bring about an untimely death. Finally, Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General’ contrasts with the two previous poems which I have chosen as it displays death in a humorous light as there is a lack of grief expressed towards John Churchill’s death.
Firstly, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard’ directly addresses death throughout its entirety. This elegy is told in the perspective of someone who fears being forgotten after they have died and presents this idea using dark and solitary imagery to evoke the emotions of how death impacts the lives of the living. Gray depicts death as a lonely state while he is left to face the graveyard alone when all others part “and leaves the world to darkness and to me” (Gray), which depicts death as an omniscient figure in Gray’s life, making this poem very personal and intimate to him, explaining why it is written in first person. The intimate nature of the poem is supported by the domestic and rural imagery surrounding the common folk. This private atmosphere also goes in line with the traditional purpose of an elegy. The poem continues to follow the natural structure of an elegy as it is written using heroic quatrains; using four-line stanzas, iambic pentameter and having a regular rhyming scheme of ABAB, this all combines to provide a measured pace. Although, this is contrasted by the non-traditional addressal of the death of a group of common people and not simply about a single person. This combination of the traditional and non-traditional provides a comfortable setting for the reader as it provides a regular and controlled flow. Gray’s elegy is filled with metaphors to explain and elucidate emotions which could not be described in ordinary language; “the curfew tolls the knell of parting day” (Gray), indicates both the bell that rings at the end of the day, and the bell that rings when someone dies so, the poet is commemorating the death of the day as if the day were a person while “Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight” (Gray) resembles how a sunset symbolises the brightness and goodness in the world appearing to fade from the poet as the darkness and loneliness of death overpowers him. Gray also uses personification to make the reader connect emotionally and sympathise with the message of the poem. The poet personifies the owl which is “moping” (Gray) and complaining to the moon of her solitary station being corrupted by the passing stranger since owls are nocturnal, they are often associated with death and graveyards which again highlights the focus on death. The speaker uses alliteration when he describes the “solemn stillness” (Gray) and alliteration when the “plowman homeward plods his weary way” (Gray), these techniques drag out the sounds of the words to emphasise the dreariness. Thus, Gray uses these poetic forms to explore how death may impact the lives of both the common people and the higher classes as he wonders “Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust, Or Flatt’ry sooth the dull cold ear of Death?” (Gray). So, Gray delivers the message that how the average people lived their lives shouldn’t be mocked because of its simplicity, although it is not honoured and praised as much as those in a higher class of life, as in the end death takes a hold of all of us regardless of who we are.
In William Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’ death is not the primary focus of the poem, as it is shown to be in the previous elegy. The primary motivation of this poem is to detail what thoughts can build up in a person to drive them to murder. The poem is deceptively simple as it uses an extended metaphor, assisted by a rhyming scheme of AABB, to translate the deep and complex emotions which transform the actions of the speaker. The meter of this poem varies as it is written in iambic tetrameter followed by certain deviations from this flow as some lines are written in a trochaic trimester, this is done to symbolise the competing nature of the speaker and their enemy as the metrical bases of these lines appear to be at odds. The main message of the poem is to express the dangers of repressing one’s anger and the consequences of doing so, which in this circumstance lead to an unfortunate death. This is aided by the comparison of the treatment of the friend “I told my wrath, my wrath did end” (Blake). Although he fails to communicate this same anger to his foe, choosing instead “I told it not, my wrath did grow” (Blake), so that it may breed and develop into a poisonous anger which eventually leads to death. The extended metaphor compares rage to a plant as the speaker cultivates their emotions similar to how they would cultivate a tree; “I watered it in fears” (Blake) “and I sunned it with smiles” (Blake). This allows it to develop and follow a growth cycle until it has produced an apple. The anger blossomed and brewed from a mere seed until it has reached its complete form from which the speaker may implement their resentment into a permanent and horrifying plan. The apple symbolises this ability to carry out the plan, to bring about an untimely death upon the foe. Blake allows us to get inside the mind of a murderer, something which is a difficult task to deliver in a tasteful way. The poem does so by delivering the dark imagery of death in an eloquent manner, portrayed through the colourful and descriptive scenery of an extended metaphor which eases the intensity of the poem into a form that is easier to comprehend. The ability to see into the murderer’s mind allows there to be an understanding that when the foe dies there is a satisfaction for the narrator, yet there is also a sense that they now see the destructiveness of what has occurred. This poem gives a perfect representation of how anger can cloud our judgements so that murder may appear as a reasonable solution.
Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General’ contrasts with this dark and sinister imagery as it expresses John Churchill’s death through a humorous manner. Swift begins his poem with his sentences ending in exclamation marks, “And so inglorious, after all!” (Swift), this emphasises the satirical and colloquial sarcasm which is strongly vocalised throughout the poem. This, evidently, strongly expresses the empathy and pity which the speaker lacks towards this particular death which displays that this elegy will not be traditional as it is mocking the dead. The non-traditional aspect of the poem is encouraged as it occupies a quick pace and the rhyming scheme of AABB to bring about a playfulness which stresses the joke of the poem, these rhyming couplets also give the poet the opportunity to conclude an observation with a rhyme which brings a sense of wittiness and finality in each of his statements. The tone and the poem itself are disrespectful towards the dead man, which Swift could argue was what Churchill deserved, but the views of death that it presents display it as the greatest agent of change. There is a guarantee of impermanence as despite all the achievements which the Duke gained throughout his lifetime “From all his ill-got honours flung, Turned to that dirt from whence he sprung” (Swift), these accomplishments were meaningless in the eyes of death as we are all equal in the end and must all suffer at the hands of our own mortality. Thus, Swift is able to deliver this dark and disturbing message, which is similar to the message in Gray’s poem, in a witty and light-hearted manner.
Therefore, it can be clearly seen that the three poems which I have analysed within this essay represent three separate views of death. ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard’ by Thomas Gray examines death from the perspective of a stranger attempting to eternalise the lives of the common people who have died and who otherwise would have been forgotten. William Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’ explores the brewing emotions which influence a person to murder and bring about an untimely death. Finally, Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Satirical Elegy. On the Death of a Late Famous General’ contrasts with these two perspectives on the deceased as it displays death in a humorous light as there is a lack of grief expressed towards John Churchill’s death. These three poems treated their common theme of death in many contrasting lights which in their entirety give a broader, although not complete, perspective on death itself.