Rustling Grass and Gray’s Elegy

English Summer Day Three and the sun is still shining, the sky is blue, the temperature up and a man is outside my window on a ladder mending the lead flashing on the roof.

I am looking beyond him to my constantly changing view which is the ancient mound which borders onto my small garden.

This piece of land belongs to the county archaeological society and is kept under lock and key so that it doesn’t become a refuge for passionate couples, drug addicts, Satanists or sun-worshiping Druids – a shame when you think about it. Consequently it is left for Nature apart from its annual haircut in deepest Winter.

Today, wild flowers are blooming, convolvulus and rose bay willow herb, the brambles are forming blackberry fruitlets and the grasses are in their full, unmowed glory. Uncut grass is so much more beautiful than those stripy manicured lawns loved by gardeners who don’t really like gardening.

It is the grass that attracts my attention.

My window is open, the builder is making those building noises that mean that the rain will stay out but which also reminds me that I am totally useless at home repairs and that a boring bill will arrive which will stop me spending money on much more entertaining things.

Reassurance comes with those grasses.

The gentlest of breezes is blowing the edge of the heat away and bringing the long feathery stems to life. It is a constantly moving landscape, beautiful to my simple mind, but also builder apart, it is the ambient sound background to my day. Rustling leaves are, somehow, more silent than silence.

As I write this the builder has climbed down from the roof leaving the world to Nature and to me. From the back of my mind I recall the poetic lines:

“The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

It is not dark and that man just left is no plowman but this poem registers in that illogical way that music does. I always loved the way the second line adds the “and to me” at the end. It is a wonderfully simple way of emphasising solitude.

The poem is Gray’s Elegy and, if not nowadays, certainly once this poem was taught to every school child. Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard, to give it its proper title, resounded through my school days and even survived enforced unison intoning in strict rhythm to demonstrate that dreaded poetic term the Iambic Pentameter. In other words the most well known poetic rhythm, dee dum dee dum dee dum dee dum dee dum.

Us schoolboys shouted it out, all five pages in our poetry books, never even thinking about its meaning but I, at least, have always remembered Iambic Pentameters and, surprizingly, Gray’s Elegy.

This wicked piece of teachers’ insensitivity didn’t kill the poem for me – on the contrary it kept it alive somewhere at the back of my brain.

That grass blowing in the breeze, I wondered why it made me think of this particular poem, so I looked it up.

It begins, like you may well know, with that famous line: “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day” but the second verse, after the plowman has homeward plodded, goes like this:

“Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds.”

Somewhere in my subconscious, which is, in the composer Benjamin Britten’s words, much cleverer than I am, I have clocked that mood where gentle noises are more silent than silence. In this case the drowsy tinklings lulling distant folds. How weird that hearing the breeze-blown grass took me to this poem via the plodding plowman and my builder.

Thomas Gray (1716-1771) was a sensitive and gentle person who in many ways was a fore-runner of the Romantic movement and especially the Nature loving poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge who came after him. He valued his friends and his pleasant cloistered bachelor life as a scholar at Cambridge University but was so self-critical that he only published thirteen of his poems in his life-time. In fact he only started writing poetry in middle age after the early death of his much loved poet friend Richard West.

We know more of his poem than we realize. Like Shakespeare, he is full of good quotes, none more so than “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.” It is that phrase that registers with people who have never heard of Gray – it is the thought behind every package holiday and another example of how a poetic phrase, like a popular song, can reach places of sensitivity that we don’t always know that we have.

From my point of view the poem is also significant because it is written in what is known as quatrain form. I have been asked to take part in an on-line poetry reading tonight with the theme of the futurity of the arts on the internet. I don’t have to read any poems specifically about this which is good because I haven’t written any but I thought, just now, with those grasses taking me back to Thomas Gray, that I might just write about the future in that old and well-worn style, the quatrain.

Dee dum dee dum dee dum dee dum dee dum

Gray’s Elegy goes on to contemplate on the tombstones in that churchyard. He thinks of all the uneducated people in his own time who never had a chance to be a poet and whose work might, like his, have been an inspiration for ever:

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

Now, come to think of it, isn’t the internet just what could change all that? No one needs to be born to “blush unseen.” We can all write these days, talented people no longer need to be listed with the “unhonour’d dead” and education is truly available to everyone.

Thomas Gray would be happy for us.

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