Pastoral, taken from the Latin ‘Pastor’, meaning ‘Shepherd’, refers to literary work dealing with shepherds and the rustic, countryside lifestyle. The pastoral represents more of an idealized view rather than that of a realistic one. “If we would copy Nature, it may be useful to take this idea along with us, that pastoral is a version of what they call the Golden Age … [The poet must] … use some illusion to render a pastoral delightful; and this consists in exposing the best side only of a shepherd’s life, and in concealing it’s miseries.
” (Pope, ‘A Discourse on Pastoral Poetry’. In Butt, John, ed.
The Poems of Alexander Pope. London: Routledge) This extract taken from Pope’s comments on the pastoral can be seen very vividly in his poem “Spring”. In contrast to this, Stephen Duck’s “The Thresher’s Labour” attempts to show the actual working class lifestyle of the time.
There are many topics associated with the pastoral poem, including love and seduction, shown in Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd To His Love” and death and mourning. The elegy is an important group of the pastoral theme, and conventional features include the expression of grief, the praise of the dead, and the effects of death upon nature.
Thomas Gray’s poem “Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard” portrays the pastoral ideal by using several different images. To begin with, the title itself suggests someone mourning for someone else, and remembering their life and work in a lonely, solitary churchyard.
A reading of the poem shows that Gray suggests that even though a person is from this rustic lifestyle, anonymous and uneducated, they are more than likely to have had a life filled with joy and will be remembered just like those who are rich, powerful or famous. He also mentions that grand memorials are no greater than a simple grave marker.
In the end, even if you are poor and unknown, or rich and famous then all that counts is friendship. “He gave mis’ry all he had, a tear, He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend” (Lines 123 – 124) Gray shows us an image of a lifestyle that was firmly embedded in his readers mind. It does however, state the fact quite clearly that these people were born into this lifestyle and were taught this way of living because of who they were. They could have been born rich and done nothing great with their lives, but they were born into a rustic lifestyle and were great and glorious because of what they did within their life.
The “tolls” are a sound made by a bell being rung extremely slowly, announcing the death of a person, who has parted from this life over to death. It seems that Gray does not want the reader to be ‘in’ the poem and distances the reader from the poem and the scene by placing himself in it. The speaker is alone, in the solitary churchyard awaiting the end of the day when he is left to the “the world and darkness” (Line 4). This darkness can be seen as an everlasting sleep, the darkness of death. There are religious themes throughout the poem in which Gray uses an image of monastic lifestyle, alongside that of the countryside lifestyle.