Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Let not ambition mock..."


Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

From "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray (1762)

Shortly after Abraham Lincoln secured the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, a reporter traveled to Springfield, Ill., to learn about the candidate's background. In an interview, Lincoln said his early life could be condensed into a single phrase: "the short and simple annals of the poor."

The words didn't belong to Lincoln, but rather to the 18th-century English poet Thomas Gray, and they came from "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." ....

There was a time when most educated people would have recognized Lincoln's reference: "Gray's Elegy," wrote Leslie Stephen (the father of Virginia Woolf), "includes more familiar phrases than any poem of equal length in the language." Its 32 stanzas burst with celebrated passages: "The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day"; "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen"; "Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife"; and so on. ....

...Gray's "Elegy" also rose above the ghetto of a genre, expressing universal ideas in lines that worked their way into collective memory. Samuel Johnson didn't care for most of Gray's poetry, but even he confessed an admiration for the elegy, praising its "images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo." .... [more]