My lesson on Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” bombed pretty spectacularly today. Well, that might be a bit hyperbolic. Surely the time of day, and few classroom irregularities also bear some blame.
I began the lesson by telling students I was going to tell them a story. In Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain, there is a fantastic story about General James Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in the French and Indian War. Things were going badly for the English and Americans. The French wouldn’t budge out of Montreal, and the only way to get to them was up a steep cliff. To top it off, Wolfe had consumption and was so sick at one point he could barely lift his head. He tried to give orders, but all the English attempts to engage the French were failures. Summer was passing quickly, and before long, fall would come, freezing over the St. Lawrence, and making an attack unfeasible until the spring thaw. Suddenly Wolfe’s consumption went into remission, and he hatched a crazy plan. He had seen a little inlet and wondered if he could get his troops up the cliff. From the text:
At dead of night, Wolfe led the the 5,000 British and American soldiers with blackened faces silently downriver in rowing boats till they were opposite the Heights of Abraham. As he was borne along the treacherous river whose rocks and shoals made it a hazard to all but Quebeçois, Wolfe softly read out his favourite poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, published only a few years before, a copy of which his fiancée had just sent out to him from England. His thin face, touched by moonlight, seemed to wear a beatific expression as he murmured the sonorous words whose Romantic, melancholic spirit echoed his own. As the mysterious cliffs loomed up ahead and the men rested on their muffled oars, Wolfe closed the book. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I had rather have written that poem than take Quebec.’ But then he leaped overboard, into the swirling St Lawrence, and ran ahead of them until his was only one of the many tiny figures on the vast cliff face pulling themselves up by ropes.
When dawn rose over Quebec Montcalm [the French commander] awoke to see on the plain behind him, above the cliffs said to be unclimbable, row after row of British redcoats. They were in battle array and far outnumbered the French, whose sentries’ mangled bodies bestrewed the cliffs or floated in the river below. It was a breathtaking, almost impossible, feat, to have put thousands of men on top of a cliff overnight, but Wolfe had done it.
Wolfe died of wounds received in the battle, but his attack was successful, and the English captured Quebec. And yet he says he would rather have written Gray’s poem. After telling my students this story, I asked them to close their eyes and try to picture the images as I read the poem. That was a mistake. It’s about 128 lines long, which is bearable, but longer than their attention spans for sure. Second, they did not have the vocabulary to picture the images in the poem. After I read the poem, the students journaled, and that was where I lost them. They didn’t know what to write, and they knew they had trouble comprehending the language, so they felt a little lost. That was when I realized my mistake. We read it a second time, and I redeemed myself a bit. If I were to do the activity again, I wouldn’t read the poem aloud. Instead, we would read it together or I would split them in groups to read and annotate. I might even have had them read the poem for homework and define all the words they didn’t understand as they read.
My thinking with the read-aloud is that the poem has such strong imagery that I thought listening would lead my students to a stronger understanding of the images used in the poem. I had always intended to read the poem twice, but the first time through was a bit of a waste of our time.
Back to the drawing board!
Do you teach this poem in your class? How do you tackle the vocabulary?
photo credit: Rennett Stowe