Loss is a condition felt by all humans at numerous points during their life span. Loss can be defined as grief (pain, anguish and disappointment) due to unmet expectations, hopes and dreams. In a healthy person grief is experienced during the transition from loss to resolution. Two Classic English poems that represent loss are Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village. However each poet approaches the experience of loss in their own unique way.
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To begin with Gray’s Elegy, his poem has been critiqued in numerous books and papers since it was written over a period of several years. For some reviewers the highlight of Gray’s poem is that it is ironic, whereas for others it is that the poem is sentimental. Generally, it is conceded though that the Elegy the poem is a ghost’s monologue with the living about death that has the power to console those who find themselves in mourning.
Aligning with its title, Gray’s poem functions to represent sorrow and grief felt due to loss of a loved one through death. The poem also affirms the life of the person before their passing away, which in many ways acts as a comfort to those left behind. For, as Gray makes clear, a person may be virtually unknown within their community with their potential unrealized, yet their life will be filled with experiences, joyous and painful. Also, the life of the anonymous departed will have many more positive events, and significantly less ill effects on the lives of others, as compared to the life of a rich, powerful or famous person.
With respect to the socio-economic distinction during life and at death, Gray states that dramatic memorials that money buys cannot aid the deceased, and in this sense is equitable to a common grave marker. Overall, Gray advocates, it is friendship between people that counts at the end of our life time. That a friend exists to mourn, cry for and lament the passing of someone who is close, symbolizes the beauty and richness of death;
On some fond breast the parting soul relies, /Some pious drops the closing
eye requires” (89-90)…He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear, /He gain’d
from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend (123-24).
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Gray approaches the experience of loss as a universal phenomenon, instead of speaking from an individual’s perspective. This is reflected in the first three stanzas where the animals mourning for the loss of another day is a metaphor for the passing away of a person. Gray goes on to contrast the opening scene with allegorical figures who symbolize human traits of the 18th century; Ambition (29), Grandeur (31), Memory (38), Honor (43), Flattery and Death (44), Knowledge (49), Penury (51), Luxury and Pride (71), Forgetfulness (85), and Nature (91). Hence, the darkness of the country can be compared with social life of the typical person. Gray reduces all persons to the level of a dead village, just as death reduces all to the level of equality, regardless of their apparent importance whilst living; “The paths of glory lead but to the grave” (36).
His poem is characterized by a tone of restraint and his movement across speakers, which blend to lend the lines a sense of powerful feeling. Overall, the essence of the Elegy is to frame the experience of loss at a distance from the reader. The iambic pentameter quatrains (10 syllables for each of the four lines) beautifully strengthen the context of the poem. In each stanza, the first line rhymes with the third and the second line rhymes with the fourth. William Shakespeare and John Dryden had used this stanza form, also known as the heroic quatrain. In summary, Gray’s poem approaches loss as best allegorized with a death that; shows life is transitory; and that poverty and other social disadvantages means that many of the talented never have the opportunity to fulfill their potential, or receive the recognition that they deserve.
Moving now to Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village (1759), the approach to loss uses the metaphor of a rural village that is depopulated. He speaks of “the increase of our luxuries; and here also I expect the shout of modern politicians against me”, as being the main cause for the dwindling of residency. As such, Goldsmith attributes consumerism as a destructive influence incurring loss. He draws on his personal experiences and so unlike Gray’s universal perspective, Goldsmith presents the particular and individual experience. In this way the tow poems are starkly contrasted, as Gray’s approaches loss from a perspective in which it is assumed all people can relate to, whereas Goldsmith provides an individual account of almost, “if you don’t experience it you won’t know”.
The poem moves from the portrayal of a stable functional and desirable village of his childhood to its disappearance to make way for a large country estate of a wealthy merchant. Now that no one lives in the village, its past active period represents a “golden age” where things were better and people were happier and more considerate of each other and their environment. Thus, Goldsmith’s poem is a mourning lament to a loss of a way of life that brought him joy. Goldsmith’s poem highlights negative social characteristics that are linked to fame, wealth and power. In this way, his poem is comparable in theme to that of Gray.
Goldsmith also echoes Gray’s the losses of the rich through life, such as the simple joys that one can experience in day to day life. And the content style adopted by both poets highlighted social contexts. The poem has been noted for its affectionate humor (Holocombe, 2004-2007).
Both poets uphold the simple pleasures of the poor as being more real and substantial than the artificial experiences of those in the higher socio-economic brackets. Goldsmith, like Gray, also uses the iambic pentameter line to develop a distinctive and formal style to his poem. His rhyming couplets gather in a long discursive sequence. As such, the poem easily moves from sub-topic to sub-topic, organizing itself into a coherent whole. Goldsmith adds power to his lines about loss by using the style to form a very specialized vocabulary and unique word order combinations.
Also similar to Gray is the use of subtle irony. For example, Goldsmith writes of the virtues of the village teacher that lead the townspeople to admire him, yet it is also revealed that the teacher had many limitations to his character. Both poets present their poems with the expected generalities familiar to eighteenth century life in England (Holocombe, 2004-2007); although, this approach has also been considered contrived and over-inflated when comparisons are made with earlier and simpler drafts.
In this way, the poets maintained a style rejected by the Romantics, that of everyday observation. Social commentary is important to ensure justification, accountability and functional change to belief systems and values. Gray and Goldsmith offer insight as to how to systematically break down and analyze with a critical eye the social norms that each person is bounded by. The shared conclusion for the poets was that materialism and dominance lead to empty and unhappy experiences. Further state the poets, the negative consequences that ripple out to others lower in social hierarchies is largely due to selfish actions of the wealthy and famous.
As Augustan poets, Gray and Goldsmith were part of a literary explosion that saw the emergence of the novel. Satire and some political melodrama were popular, and self reflection through poetry was growing. Each of these factors is present in the content of the poems of Gray and Goldsmith. There was an increased need for reading matter in these times, and the length of interweaving short stories embedded within each poem shows this. Mercantilism and Capitalism were philosophical principles for those in the upper classes. As such, both poets take a bold approach to their portrayals of loss; providing a collective and individualistic viewpoints in turn.
Holcombe, J.C. (2004-2007) Revision of The Deserted Village, towards the fully-dressed style of Augustan poetry. Web.