‘Elegy’ is an acerbic parody of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,‘ although it could easily serve as a sarcastic critique of the poetic form as a whole. Using just the first four lines of the original poem, it twists its adoration and sanctimoniousness into something far more mockingly humorous.
Done with the purpose of revealing the self-indulgent and senseless nature of issuing one’s sorrow outward to a world that is impassive towards it. Even the speaker themselves appears aware of the immense vanity of their attempts to compose an elegy.
Elegy Ambrose BierceThe cur foretells the knell of parting day; The loafing herd winds slowly o'er the lea; The wise man homewards plods; I only stay To fiddle-faddle in a minor key.
‘Elegy’ by Ambrose Bierce parodies the first four lines of another famous elegy and satirizes the severe reflection of death such poems often prattle with.
‘Elegy’ opens on a scene that at once feels incongruent with the mood and tone of your typical elegy. The first two lines describe the speaker’s view and choose to hone in on two animals observed: a cur (possibly howling at the coming night); and a herd (cows or sheep seem likely) lazily meandering around a hill. The speaker then comments that a wise man would choose to leave — a sharp criticism that implies those who compose such elegies are not counted among the wise.
That stab is made all the more acute in the final line. With all the animals and wise men gone, the speaker admits they remain behind to “fiddle-faddle” (i.e., speak nonsense, dill-dally) in a “minor key.” In other words, they will compose a blathering elegy that is of a restrained melancholy.
Parody and Satire
‘Elegy’ actually parodies the opening lines of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ with the purpose of satirizing its indulgence of the piously glum sentiments expressed therein. In his recreation of the poem, Bierce does make some alterations to the original text (which you can read below). The main purpose of these changes is to transform the previously reverent elegy into one that is slyly deriding the speaker’s attempts to compose a poem about death.
Bierce contorts the original text toward their goal. The phrase “curfew tolls” becomes “cur foretells” and “lowing herd” is changed to “loafing herd.” A more prominent exchange is “plowman” for “wise man” and the complete substitution of the final line — which deftly drives home the poet’s ridicule of the original.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard‘ by Thomas Gray
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
‘Elegy’ uses a handful of literary devices, mainly a variety of imagery. Bierce uses auditory imagery: “the knell of parting day” (1); “fiddle-faddle in a minor key” (4). There are also examples of both visual and kinesthetic imagery: “loafing herd winds slowly o’er the lea” (2); “wise man homewards plods” (3).
The cur foretells the knell of parting day;
The loafing herd winds slowly o’er the lea;
The wise man homewards plods; I only stay
To fiddle-faddle in a minor key.
‘Elegy’ is a short poem that illustrates a scene meant to precede a wayfaring meditation on death. But instead of being this solemn contemplation, the speaker of Bierce’s poem is impassively sardonic when it comes to the subject of mortality. As a parody of Thomas Gray’s poem, it pokes fun at the sanctimonious self-importance that exists (in the eyes of the poet) at the heart of such lamentations.
It also presents a scene that is wholly absent of the typically grand and sacred significance usually applied in elegies. Instead, the speaker focuses solely on the mundane and perhaps slightly profane: from the “cur” (1) to the lazily “loafing herds” (2), Bierce corrupts the idyllic pastoral setting with bitter disenchantment. The final two lines punctuate the poem’s mockery with the image of the wise man heading home — like the other animals — leaving behind the speaker to sing their vain words of “fiddle-faddle in a minor key” (4).
The poem is less than admiring of the elegiac poem. As a result, the theme can be summed up in its last two verses, which insinuates that the wise man does not partake in such poetic moaning. Not even the animals will suffer the wailings of the speaker — they themselves admit that their attempts to create an elegy will amount to nothing but “fiddle-faddle.”
Bierce was a realist who often portrayed an unvarnished and brutal side of life. He was also exceptionally critical of religion, which he saw as being borne out of hope and fear that attempted to explain the unknowable. As a result, it’s not hard to see some of the issues the writer had with the Romantic movement that preceded him. One that cast its lofty verse into such subjects as death with what Bierce might’ve seen as flowery ignorance and naivety.
Bierce’s poem is an almost word-for-word recreation of the original but with a few key alterations that completely alter its meaning. Unlike satire, the goal of parody isn’t social commentary but rather the ironic imitation of another work, writer, or genre. This poem not only parodies the elegy as a form of poetry but also specifically Gray’s poem.
In writing this parody, it’s interesting that Bierce keeps the speaker somewhat the same as Gray’s poem. Instead of taking on a poetic voice that might mock alongside him — he opts for the double cynicism of a speaker lamenting his own lamentation.
- ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ by Thomas Gray – this poem sees the speaker engulfed in mourning as they ruminate on death.
- ‘A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General’ by Jonathan Swift – this poem also employs satire to poke fun at the death of a man who was less than likable while alive.
- ‘ O Captain! My Captain!’ by Walt Whitman – this is perhaps one of the more famous elegies and was written in response to the death of Abraham Lincoln.