Thomas Gray – “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard”

Now, this is the one poem by Gray that became really well-known, and several of its lines became familiar quotations. It was so popular that even Dr Johnson, who generally did not hold too high an opinion about Gray’s poetry, liked this poem. It is believed to be inspired by a visit to a churchyard in Stoke Poges, which village Gray regularly visited, because his mother lived there, and where he himself was buried under a rather big tombstone.
Gray's Monument

The poem begins in the evening, with the atmospheric description of the scenes which usually take place in the countryside at that time of the day: cattle and people heading home, the fading light and fading sounds of the evening landscapes, except for a (very gothic) owl complaining to the moon about the passers-by invading its loneliness.

The poet turns his attention to the “rude forefathers of the hamlet” buried in the churchyard. Why only forefathers and not mothers? There are actually reasons why Gray is only interested in men, and he does portray them explicitly as men, so there’s no chance he uses “forefathers” more generically. He starts with the usual “they will never be alive again” and then depicts their lives as they used to be, but nevermore: they will never return from their fields to their wives and children. Their present state is contrasted with the vigour with which they used to plow their fields and cut down trees. But one should not look down upon them just because they were unknown and their lives are in “the short and simple annals of the poor”. The high-born and rich people have nothing to boast about, because “the paths of glory lead but to the grave”; all the big monuments cannot resurrect those once rich and powerful.

And the people who are buried here could have been potentially great as well, it’s just that they were unlucky to be born poor. Maybe in this churchyard lies potential John Hampden, who resisted not the King but only a “little tyrant of his fields”. King Charles was imprisoned in Stoke Poges after his capture, so I guess that’s why Gray’s thought goes specifically to the 17th c. – the other great men these simple farmers could have been are Milton (“some mute inglorious Milton here may rest”) or Cromwell, but “guiltless of his country’s blood”. The virtues of these men could never be so great that they won fame and applause, but the reverse of it is that they never had a chance to commit as great crimes. They lived quiet lives, “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”.

So Gray focuses on men, because in their case the gap between what one could achieve if he was born in a rich family was much more striking. And also because, honestly, he’s not paying that much attention. Sure, women up to the time of his writing this poem had had a much higher bar to clear to become something else than a wife, mistress or mother; the only area where a significant number of women won fame was the stage. If you were a woman, you had to win at the birth lottery to be born in a rich family as well as to be super-smart to achieve anything. But still, had Gray not been so male-oriented, he would have been able to notice that in this churchyard lies many a potential Queen Elizabeth, who was born poor and died in childbirth.

William Blake illustrated this poem beautifully as well:

William Blake - The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 105, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." - Google Art Project

William Blake - The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 107, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." - Google Art Project

William Blake - The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 109, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." - Google Art Project

William Blake - The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 111, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." - Google Art Project


Olaudah Equiano – “The Interesting Narrative…” (ctd.)

The white sailors are cruel not only to the Africans, but also to other whites: Equiano saw a white man flogged to death and tossed overboard. Much of what he sees around him doesn’t make sense to him and he asks his countrymen for explanation. They tell him that the white people live in a country far away, and the reason why he can’t see any women is that they all stayed behind. They also explain to him that the ship is moved by the power of the wind, but they don’t know how the anchor works and they can only tell it stops by magic. Equiano soon has a chance to see for himself how this works, as another ship comes into the harbour. The sailors from the other ship come on board, they greet the white people enthusiastically, and surprisingly enough, they also shake hands with some of the blacks. They try to show the Africans by signs that they are going to their country, but the Africans don’t understand them. After a few days the ship sets out. The passage is horrific, with people suffocating under deck with the stench of their sweat and excrements from the latrines. Some of the weakest ones, including Equiano, are allowed to stay on the deck to get some air. When on deck, Equiano sees three slaves getting through the netting surrounding the sides of the ship and jumping into the sea, preferring death. The whites put all the other blacks under the deck and immediately set out in pursuit of the blacks: two of them drown, but they manage to catch one and flog him mercilessly. They are also gratuitously cruel, like when they catch some fish and throw out the ones they didn’t eat, even though the blacks are begging for them. One of the few nicer moments  is when a sailor lets Equiano look through a quadrant he uses for navigation.

Finally they reach Barbados. Equiano is surprised by many things he sees there, including multi-storied houses and people on horseback, which he again considers magic. But other people who speak Igbo, even though they are from a part of Africa distant from Equiano’s own, tell him they have seen horses in their homeland as well. The whites come on board of the ship to have a first look at the enslaved people. The Africans are scared, thinking they are going to be eaten, and there is so much turmoil that some slaves from the plantations are sent for, to explain to people that they are not to be eaten but to work. The next day the slaves are put out to sale. The usual method is that they are sold in groups, and when the  signal is given, the merchants rush to call dibs on the “parcel” they want to buy; they look so feverish during this competition that they scare the Africans even more. The worst part is that people are put in “parcels” indiscriminately, with families being torn apart, and Equiano himself saw a heart-rending scene when several brothers were separated. He writes very bitterly about “nominal Christians” who not only buy and sell slaves out of avarice, but also cruelly and wantonly deprive people of the comfort of having their relations with them. This cruelty at least “has no advantage to atone for it”, writes Equiano, although I guess it had a purpose – by separating families the slave owners wanted to stave off the possibility of a rebellion.

Olaudah Equiano – “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself” (excerpts)

Finally, after so many texts about slaves (both real and fictional), we get the authentic voice of a man who was enslaved himself. Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo boy, was kidnapped by slave hunters in Africa, sold in America to a British officer who renamed him Gustavus Vassa after a Swedish king. (The NAEL editors think that it was an attempt to hide his identity from the authorities, because keeping slaves was frowned upon in the British navy. I think the NAEL editors just fail to see that calling somebody after a fairly famous Swedish king is no disguise at all, and that Equiano’s owner had just a sick sense of humour, naming his black slave after a Swedish hero, similarly to other slave owners who liked to name their slaves after Roman gods or heroes.) The name stuck and he used it for the rest of his life, using his real Nigerian name (or its anglicised form) just in this book’s title. The excerpt starts when Olaudah is taken away from the home of his last owner (who used to treat him kindly, but apparently only as a piece of investment) and transported to the ship. He is shocked not so much by the ship and the sea, but most of all by the white people, whom he sees for the first time, their faces and long hair. He thinks he is in hell and they are evil spirits. He faints and when he comes round, the blacks who brought him to the ship try to cheer him up. One of the whites brings him a glass of liquor, which he refuses to take from his hand, but accepts it when a black man gives it to him. The liquor confuses him even more, since he never drank it before. He is then thrown under the deck where he is overpowered by the stench and crying. He wants to die, but when he refuses to eat, the whites flog him. He finds other Igbo people and asks them what is going to happen to them. They tell him they are going to be carried to the land of the white people, where they are going to work for them. Olaudah is a bit cheered by it, but he is still afraid he is going to be killed, especially seeing how cruelly they treat him and other enslaved people.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury -“‘Sensus Communis’: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour” (excerpts)

The future 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury was pretty much the child of John Locke without actually sharing his DNA: Locke allegedly negotiated his parents’ marriage, assisted as a physician at his birth and was his tutor. The excerpt starts with Shaftesbury addressing a nameless friend, who yesterday expressed his surprise, when Shaftesbury defended in his conversation “raillery”, and Shaftesbury decided to give this thought a more thorough treatment. Firstly, he hopes his friend was surprised not because he considers him to be such a grouch, but because most people, while they are OK with making fun of other people’s views, do not like it when the same thing happens to them. But truth can exist only in full light, and raillery is one of such lights.

Mary Astell – “A Preface, in Answer to Some Objections to ‘Reflections upon Marriage'” (the end)

The last excerpt starts with Astell saying that men have all the power, political, physical and cultural, and she’s not going to argue with that. But what should the fatherless orphans or widows do? Who is going to have the authority over them? (well, in lots of countries is just the nearest male relative, or even your own son, so the argument could be countered quite easily.) Women can’t be subjected to all men, because they don’t agree all the time, so should they be subjected to the first man who finds them? You could think so, judging by some men and women. But even if it should be so, women should be at least allowed to improve their reason. (This is a bit of a non-sequitur, I think.) And if you just don’t believe they are reasonable creatures, they should be chained in the chimney corner.

Astell says she doesn’t mean to prevent a rebellion, because there won’t be any – women just like their chains. They also internalized patriarchy and think about themselves as inferior to men – but not necessarily to other women, as every woman likes to consider herself superior to others of their sex. In a very ironic passage Astell writes that all women who like the roles assigned to them by society should be celebrated for that. No man can accept a woman of understanding, and even if he does, he still thinks that if she is wise, she should understand his superiority. But what is called “the very women” or “good devout women” should not be the standard for all women, because when God made various creatures, he meant only the best of their kind to be the standard for the rest.

John Locke – “Two Treatises of Government” chapter IV (excerpt)

The section on liberty starts with the excerpts from John Locke focus on his attitudes to slavery, which are complicated, to say the least: on one hand he disliked it ethically, but on the other hand he invested in slave-trading companies. Two Treatises were written as a polemic with Robert Filmer, a conservative defender of the absolute power of the monarch. Locke argues that there are two kinds of liberty: the natural liberty, found only in state of nature, when the only law is the law of nature, and the liberty of man in society, where he is subject to laws but only such as the legislative body, established by common consent, can pass. One cannot dispense of this liberty, even if one wanted. For Locke the “law of nature” is not the Sadeian total freedom, but rather following the will of God, and hence his argument against suicide. If we mustn’t commit suicide, we mustn’t also put ourselves wholly in the power of somebody who could kill us on a whim. He makes then an argument I don’t quite understand: let’s say somebody does something punishable by death, but the person who has it in his power to administer it, chooses to make a slave out of him rather than kill him; if the slavery is too unbearable, all the enslaved person has to do is to be disobedient in order to provoke his master to punish him by death.  Locke imagines slavery more as a contract, where one side promises a limited power over the enslaved, and the other obedience, one side being the “lawful conqueror” and the other a captive. Locke uses the examples from the Old Testament to argue that even among ancient Jews slavery was more like being an indentured servant (i.e. a limited-time contract) and if the servant had been maimed by their master, the contract would have ended immediately.

Frances Burney – “The Journal and Letters” (excerpts)

The worst part comes  – they start cutting off the breast. Burney screams and faints and screams. I was wondering why they didn’t give her opium – it’s early 19th century and opium can be bought as freely as aspirin nowadays – but apparently opium didn’t help much against the pain so acute as when they’re cutting a piece of your body off. When the knife is withdrawn, it doesn’t end the pain, because she can actually feel cold air entering the wound. The hacking is so hard that the doctor actually has to change the hand holding the knife. Then she can hear and feel the knife scraping the bone. After the cutting is over, Dr Larrey (who performed it) asks the others whether they can see anything else that should be removed. Burney can actually feel the finger of Dubois over the spot which he thinks needs more cleaning, even though he doesn’t touch her. And then there is more cutting, and the procedure is repeated over and over again, and still Dubois finds something which needs removing. The whole operation, including bandaging, lasted about twenty minutes, but they seemed like ages. But Burney manages to withstand it, just begging the doctors to give her warning when they are about to make another cut. Finally it’s over, but she is so weak she has to be carried to bed. During the dressing of the wound Burney actually tells her doctors she pities them and indeed, it must have been a gruesome experience for them, too. The handkerchief is taken off Burney’s face and her nurse told her later that she was nearly colourless; Dr Larrey looks equally terrible, ashen-faced and smeared with blood.  Her husband, and later her son are called to see her. The way Burney writes about her surgery, I think she must have suffered from some form of PTSD (and I am not the least surprised): she couldn’t speak or think about it for months, and even writing this letter, 9 months after the operation, gives her a headache.

Burney ends her letter by saying that her husband should write now his part of the story, but Genral D’Arblay says he’s unable to do it. Just reading his wife’s letter and learning about what it really was like nearly killed him, and he’s just grateful “that this more than half angel” didn’t want him to be present, because he’s sure he wouldn’t be able to withstand it anyway, I do not wish to make fun of M. D’Arblay, and it’s awfully sweet he felt so for his wife (and he a military man, so presumably used to gruesome sights), but what is exactly “more than half angel”? “Two-thirds angel” or “three-quarters angel”? He says thank heaven she is well and hopes for many days together. His wishes actually came true: Burney lived for twenty-eight years, outliving both him and their son, and dying at the age of eighty-eight.