Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Virtually all nineteenth and twentieth century accounts of Thomas Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' find in the Curfew bell of the opening lines primarily a figure of death evoked by the growing darkness, the fading sounds, the emptying landscape and ultimate solitude of the speaker, and most of all the funerary associations of tolling bells and the 'passing bell' tradition. And yet, culturally, despite some symbolic overlap, the Curfew bell and the passing bell are quite distinct, each with its own characteristic history, practices, traditions, and connotations, distinctions recognized widely in eighteenth century literary and antiquarian circles. In this thesis, I explore the literary historical question of why so many readers, popular and scholarly, of the 'Elegy' have avoided the overt political implications of these Curfew traditions in favor of the more allusive funerary associations. I develop an argument grounded in both literary tradition and cultural history for taking Gray's famous Curfew seriously as a literal Curfew bell, rather than as merely a symbolic passing bell or funeral bell. The result is a view of the 'Elegy' as engaging with class on a more fundamental level than usually assumed, both anticipating and informing the language of political economic discourse in the latter half of the eighteenth century, suggesting that whether we take the poem most fundamentally as a moral meditation on the ultimate universality of death or as a more socio-political reflection on the disparities of class depends greatly on how we hear this tolling bell.
Number of Pages
Thomas, Michael Joseph, "Missing The Curfew: A Cultural History Case For Re-Reading Thomas Gray's Most Famous Line" (2016). Graduate College Dissertations and Theses. 590.