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.
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: