“`Why, Scripps, it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy: `The short and simple annals of the poor.’ `That’s my life, and that’s all you or anyone else can make out of it.’”
We know from Robert Bray, author of Reading with Lincoln (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), that the future president read Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) when young, as did many nineteenth-century Americans, and memorized many of its thirty-two four-line stanzas. Bray describes the way in which deep, if not always broad reading helped turn Lincoln into one of our greatest writers:
“From boyhood on, Lincoln’s habit of reading concentrated a naturally powerful mind; and reading provided models of voice and diction to one who had inborn talent as a storyteller and a near-flawless memory and therefore needed only the stimulus of literary greatness, and emulative practice, to emerge as a great writer himself.”
On the rare occasion when a contemporary politician slips in a literary allusion, he makes sure to italicize the words. In effect, this lends them a footnote: “I’m a clever fellow, but not too clever. I know this stuff but don’t actually read it.” When Lincoln quotes Gray, it sounds effortless, apt and unaffected. He’s saying, “Gray knew poor people. I recognize myself among them.” What might sound like braggadocio in another’s mouth sounds like humility in Lincoln’s. He had years earlier internalized Gray’s poem, making it a chapter in his autobiography.
Theodore Dalrymple, too, has been rereading the “Elegy.” It has, he says, “that quality which marks out masterpieces from other works, namely that its impact never lessens however many times it is read.” More than “never lessens,” the impact of the “Elegy” grows with time. I have a dim memory of finding the poem rather safe and conventional when I first read it in college. The poem’s theme, time’s passage, revised my understanding of it. Gray waited patiently until I caught up with him. Now, like “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” “Time and the Garden” and "Church Going,” the “Elegy” reliably dispenses sustenance, pleasure and consolation.