This poem insists on being read as an elegy, in naming a subject in the title and in the proclamatory couplet at the end. Yet the human subject of the poem is almost forgotten from a few lines in – and deliberately so. The main focus is the shortness of life and fame’s transience – and the poet’s own fears about the same. The poem itself enacts this fading of a person’s memory – ‘the Glory and the Nothing of a Name’ – by evoking a ‘most famous writer’ and then failing to characterize or glorify the name as an elegy might be expected to do. The conversational tone of the poem, peppered with profundity and banal detail in equal amounts, jars against the form and hence contributes to a sense of frustration – expressing discontent with life that seems to promise much and not deliver. In this respect Byron might be seen to anticipate the modernist and symbolist poets.
The poem opens with imagery that contrasts the glory of the dead writer’s life with the forgottenness of his grave. ‘The comet of a season‘ suggests beauty, inspiring wonder and awe, but also brevity. This sense of impermanence is strengthened by ‘season’ – which also suggests the social ‘season’ amongst fashionable classes, and by association the fickleness of public support and admiration. The repetition of phrase structure in ‘The humblest of all sepulchres’ draws a direct comparison with ‘The comet of a season’, demonstrating the loss of fame from one to the other. In this line the meter is mimetic of a kind of humility, as the iambic meter leads us to stress ‘of’, a word that can only sustain a very weak stress. As a result the line seems to droop between the ‘hum’ of ‘humblest’ and the ‘sep’ of ‘sepulchres’. This is avoided in the previous line because ‘a’ is such a short syllable that we skip quickly onto ‘season’, whereas ‘all’ drags out the unstressed gaps before ‘sepulchres’.
From here on the man in the grave is all but forgotten in the poem, a process suggested in the line ‘With name no clearer than the names unknown’. Which with a rolling repetition of ‘names’ enacts a cursory glance over a graveyard of headstones in which one becomes insignificant – ‘unknown’. This loss of the individual is at odds with a style highly typical of elegy that continues right through to the end of the poem. The tight iambic pentameter and the ABABCC rhyme scheme would lend themselves to the high rhetoric of Augustan Elegies, yet contain instead a simple conversation. The mismatch between content and form might be seen as a reflection of the speaker’s discomfort – contrasting the promise and ambition of a man who died young with the pitiful memory of him that remains.
It is in fact the Old Sexton’s voice that comes out most distinctly at first, not that of the subject or speaker. His voice is distinguished by its simplicity of language, and turn of phrase which suggests a rural accent, ‘was a most famous writer in his day’. There is less enjambment when we speaks – giving his voice a clarity and directness that the speaker’s lacks. Perhaps we are put in mind of the gravediggers in Hamlet – although this Sexton speaks in earnest. The association brings to mind a death before its time, tragic and unnatural (we also have the idea that ‘Churchill’ died young from ‘comet of a season’).
We might extend this allusion into the profound outbursts from the speaker that punctuate the Sexton’s simple remarks. They echo strongly Hamlet’s soliloquies – with rhetorical questions – ‘so soon, and so successless?’ Where the incessant sibilance conveys a tone of bitter anguish – and lines such as ‘to extricate remembrance from the clay’ – recalling Hamlet’s reflection’s on flesh’s frailty, expressed in vague longings. All these associations draw out and compound the poem’s preoccupation with mortality, and expressions of ambition and desire contrasted with the universal fact of death.
The Sexton’s simple summary of ‘Churchill’s life is set up by the speaker as an appropriate tribute to him – a ‘natural homily’, with the association of a moral lesson. Yet in the gap between the delivery and approval of the speech, the poem turns again towards banality, epitomized in the word ‘inconveniently’. We suddenly have a complex picture of the speaker – someone at once bitter, miserly and incredibly vulnerable – so moved by the slight hope of a sustained memory of the dead man lasting with the Sexton.His sudden burst of anger, addressed seemingly at the reader, denounces with a Biblical tone, ‘ye profane ones’. It can be seen as addressed to the fickle public consciousness – so fast forgetting people who it once adored, never ‘dwelling with a deep thought’ on anything. The suddenness of this address suggests that the speaker’s emotions, while pacified with hope, as still raw and fragile. Ending the poem in this way, with a sudden revelation of the speaker’s character, has the effect of attaching the final couplet more to the speaker himself rather than the original subject. It captures the essence of the poem, with the forceful final alliteration giving a sense of finality in exasperation – wonder and confusion at how a person’s life can come to so little.