Gray and Goldsmith’s Attitudes towards Loss

Death as man’s fate can never be controlled by anyone or by anything. This is what one can infer from the poems of Thomas Gray and Oliver Goldsmith. These poems deal about death or loss of life and all other losses humans experience in life. Consequently, this paper is a comparative analysis of the attitudes of Gray and Goldsmith towards death or loss in their poems.

This includes a discussion of the similarities and differences of the poet’s attitude which can be deduced from the speaker’s involvement or attachment, the speaker’s feelings towards the subject and the tone of the poems “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray and “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith. Obviously, both poets have similar attitudes and feelings about the subject. However, Gray communicates stronger attitudes about loss or death in his poem than what Goldsmith articulates about the subject in his poem.

To begin with, Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is a poem composed of 128 lines grouped into stanzas and it focuses on the dead people buried in a country churchyard. While, Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” is a poem consisting of 430 lines grouped into irregular number of lines per thought and it talks of the wretchedness of a village named Auburn. These poems have the following similarities. Initially, both poets are emotionally attached to the topic on hand. Gray feels the loss as he contemplates of his own death someday.

Meanwhile, Goldsmith has personally experienced the loss of happy memories in Auburn especially in the first 34 lines of the poem. Next, the poems “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and “The Deserted Village” attest that death prevents humans from doing what they were used to doing and from experiencing the pleasures they used to experience. In lines 17 to 28 of Gray’s poem, the speaker cites that the dead can no longer wake up every morning with the sounds of the “swallow”, the “cock” and the horn, be with their wife and children or go to work in the farm fields.

Likewise, lines 243 to 250 of Goldsmith’s poem say that those who die can no longer enjoy the different pleasures in life. Another is that according to the two poems, death or loss will come to any person regardless of his/ her social position, prestige and economic status. No one is exempted from experiencing death. It comes to the poor as well as to the rich. It comes to the kind and to the unkind. This is exemplified in the lines 33 to 40 of Gray’s poem which point that even the rich will die and their riches will not prevent death or loss from happening.

It is also cited in the lines 107 and 109 of Goldsmith’s poem that man will “meet his latter end” and will go down “to the grave”. The lives of the “village preacher” in lines 140 to 187 and the “village master” in lines 196 to 240 both exemplify that death comes to anyone in the poem “The Deserted Village”. Subsequently, both poems show that a human being goes to another place after his or her life on earth is over. Gray mentions the word “heaven” found in line 124 and “God” in the last line of the poem. Goldsmith also speaks of “heaven” in lines 112 and 188.

This means that both poets believe that when death comes to a person, he or she has the hope of going to heaven to be with God who is the creator of man and of the universe. Lastly, the tone of Gray and Goldsmith’s poems is similarly mournful,

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hopeful and wishful. Since the poems talk about death or loss, they are obviously in a state of mourning for the dead. Gray evokes an atmosphere of mourning in the first twelve lines of the poem with the images of “the parting day” (line 1), the farmer going home, and the coming of darkness. Gray also uses the wailing of the “owl” in line 10 to conjure this tone.

Meanwhile, Goldsmith uses the words “saddens” in line 38, “cries” in line 46, “griefs” in line 84 among others to present this tone. But in spite of the tone of mourning in these poems, they also express the hopes and wishes of the poets that after death or loss, there will be a new life or a new beginning as alluded to in words “heaven” in lines 122 and 124 and the word “Father” and “God” in line128 of Gray’s poem. In addition, Goldsmith mentions the word “heaven” in line 188 and the phrase “worlds beyond the grave in line 374 of his poem.

The differences in the attitudes and feelings of Gray and Goldsmith towards loss in their poems are the following: first, Gray seems to feel uninvolved in the poem because he uses the pronouns “them” and “their” most of the time. Perhaps, this is because he does not personally know the people who died and who were laid in the country churchyard. In fact, he was just making guesses or contemplating of possibilities of what these could have become and what could have happened to them if they did not die yet. In contrast, Goldsmith feels very involved because he uses the personal pronouns “my” and “I” for many times in the poem.

This could mean that what he has written in the poem is based on his very own experiences. Second, Gray demonstrates that death prevents anyone from achieving their ambitions or from discovering their hidden potentials. This can be interpreted from lines 45 to 64 where Gray elaborates the things that those who have died could have done in their lives if they were still alive. The speaker thinks of someone who could be a “Penury” in line 51, a “Hampden” in line 57, a “Milton” in line 59, and a “Cromwell” in line 60.

On the contrary, Goldsmith does not mention the what- could-have-been in his poem because he primarily talks about the loss of the simple pleasures as part of village life. Third, Gray encourages that man should be prepared to die because it is a part of the natural course of life. Just as a day in a person’s life comes to an end as literally stated in lines 1 to 4 of the poem so does a person’s life on earth ends. If there is a beginning, there is also an ending. Nothing is ever permanent in this world. Everything is temporary.

What has been commonly quoted by many: “The only thing that does not change is change itself” and “There is an end to everything” are indeed true. Gray tells us in the poem that humans need to prepare for that time when they will die because it is inevitable. He even makes himself an example of a person who gets ready for his death. As a matter of fact, he includes in lines 116 to 128 of the poem an epitaph that is to be written in his own grave. However, Goldsmith implies fear or suggests dread for the day of one’s death in lines 363 to 370 of his poem.

The words or phrases “sorrows gloom’d”, “look’d their last”, “wish’d in vain”, and “shudd’ring” gives an idea that the poet is not yet prepared to die if he feels that death is something that comes to everyone. Fourth, Gray presents that nothing can bring back a dead person to life. He asks in the form of rhetorical questions in lines 41 to 44 if the things he has mentioned are able to bring back a dead person’s “breath”. Since these are rhetorical questions, obviously the answer to all these is a resounding “NO”.

There is really nothing that can be done or no one can do anything to make life come back to someone who is already dead. A realization can then be made based on this. A person has to do what he can do and what he wants to do while he/ she is still alive because when he dies he can never do them or he cannot return to life to do them. Goldsmith, on the other hand, does not talk about these things. Fifth, Gray feels that those who are still alive should honor and remember those who have died. This is implicitly expressed in lines 77 to 112.

The words “memorial” (line 78), “tribute” (line 80), “forgetfulness” (line 85), “unhonour’d” (line 93), and “tale relate” (line 94) are some of the hints that tell us that the poet wants to be honored. He also wishes in these lines that a friend or a “kindred spirit” (line 96) would remember him when he has died. Contrariwise, Goldsmith does not refer to these hopes in his poem. Instead he has other things revealed. Sixth, Goldsmith in “The Deserted Village” presents that loss is caused by a person’s discontentment or his/ her desire for luxury and wealth.

The loss specifically referred here is the loss of the “ignorance of wealth” which leads to the loss of the simple pleasures in life that is analogous to the loss of one’s own life. It can be surmised from the poem that when humans lose their desire for the simple sources of joy and happiness and instead desire for luxury and wealth, then destruction or loss of life results just like what happened to Auburn. The speaker implicitly condemns “luxury” which caused the desolation of Auburn in lines 51 to 56 and lines 385 to 390.

The discontentment of the village people for the simple pleasures referred to in the words “sports” (line 18), “pastime” (line 19), “sleights of art and feats of strength” (line 22), “dancing” (line 25), and “laughter” (line 28) led the people to “leave the land” (line 50). This idea is indeed true but Gray was not able to mention it in his poem. Seventh, according to Goldsmith, loss causes pain or is very painful on the part of the person who has lost someone or something very dear to him/ her.

The words “pain” in line 82, “vexations” in line 95, and the phrase “sorrow, guilt and pain” in line 172 prove that it is painful to loss someone or even something. Likewise, the loss of happy memories can be as painful as having lost one’s body part. Conversely, Gray is silent about pain in his poem. Perhaps, he does not consider a natural process of life which is death as something painful or something which causes sorrow. Eighth, Goldsmith proposes that loss comes after luxury, wealth and pleasures. So for him, one should stay away from these things.

He even calls “luxury” as “curst by Heaven’s decree” in line 385. He also demonstrates through irony in lines 52 to 56 that when riches abound, men’s lives deteriorate. In addition, lines 63 to 74 support the proposition that “trade’s unfeeling train” (line 63) resulted to “mirth and manners” (line 74) being lost. Finally, the tone of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” reveals his attitude or feelings for the poor, his readiness to die and his resignation to the inevitability of death whereas; the tone of Goldsmith’s poem is a mix of happiness, sadness, irony, and condemnation.

Furthermore, the tone of Gray’s poem remains constant throughout the poem. In contrast, the tone of Goldsmith’s poem changes its tone from one feeling to another such as being happy then sad, ironic then condemning. To sum it up, both Gray and Goldsmith feel that death or loss comes to every human being whether he or she is poor, rich, kind or unkind at anytime. When loss comes, one can no longer do what he or she used to do or would want to do. And that loss comes with hope of going to heaven to be with God.

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