Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751), lns. 53-72

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

The applause of listening senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse's flame.

In the progress of these stanzas, the notion of alternative stories is made radical. The initial image of the never-seen flower--the flower that could have been--challenges the scene of graveyard stillness and finality, but only for a moment; as soon as this image is offered, it becomes the new thematic resting-place for the lyric, which is suddenly like a hundred other lyrics about stillborn children. This new thematic stasis is challenged by yet another possibility: that the deceased might as well have been bloody criminals as saints. Suddenly the nature of elegy becomes confused . . . social terms are no longer adequate to inspire this elegy, since the dead might have oppressed as well as enabled their countrymen. The issue of community ("Would that he/she had lived for MY sake") is ambiguated; it seems that we can only wish the dead had lived for their own sake. Yet this is not sufficient either, because the way of all (or much) flesh leads to luxury and pride. What kind of elegy remains, except for an elegy for an elegy? This instability is characteristic of sensibility, where, as soon as the sensible person offers a RESPONSE to a situation, the response is questionable. Sensibility relies on an initial response to an impression, and every refinement that attempts to get closer in meaning to that impression suffers one more level of mediation.

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography