Book Review: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard


Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and other poems

This is the sixth of 20 volumes of the Penguin English Journeys series. I plan to read all 20 in the month of April.

I don’t read a lot of poetry. And I understand even less so it makes writing a review of this anthology of poems a bit laughable. With pastoral-y snippets from Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy, and others, there was plenty to enjoy, I just don’t know how to write about it.

Since my hugely enjoyable, but short-lived days as a vocal performance major in college, most of the poetry in my life comes from classical music. German lieder, French mélodie, and English/American art songs: these are the way I experience poetry. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I opened this volume and the very first line I read suddenly brought a melody to my head. Charles Cotton’s Evening Quatrains jumped off the page and into my ear as I heard Sir Peter Pears, composer Benjamin Britten’s longtime life and artistic partner singing Lord Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horns and Strings”. This has long been one of my favorite pieces by Britten and I love the astringent clarity of Pears voice in the wonderful recording I have of the work. Britten didn’t set every verse of the poem to music, but here are some he did:

The day’s grown old; the fainting sun
Has but a little way to run,
And yet his steeds, with all his skill,
Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.

The shadows now so long do grow,
That brambles like tall cedars show;
Mole hills seem mountains, and the ant
Appears a monstrous elephant.

A very little, little flock
Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;
Whilst the small stripling following them
Appears a mighty Polypheme.

This recording isn’t the fabulous Pears/Britten recording, but it does give you a sense of the beauty of the work.

Next up: A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

  1. AnswerGirl April 19, 2010 / 8:29 pm

    The idea that there's a right way or a wrong way to think, talk or write about poetry keeps people from reading it, which is a shame. Poetry is about the song in your heart, not anything in your head. Or as Archibald MacLeish wrote,

    A poem should not mean
    But be.


  2. Thomas at My Porch April 20, 2010 / 5:39 pm

    Answer Girl: I think I do best with poetry when I am guided through it. I need someone to fill in some of the blanks and explain context and all those other things that helps one understand what the heck the poet is talking about. With my type A brain, I have a hard time letting poems “be” I feel the need to have them “mean” something.


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