The first version of the elegy is among the few early poems composed by Gray in English, including "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West," his "Eton Ode", and his "Ode to Adversity". All four contain Gray's meditations on mortality that were inspired by West's death. The later version of the poem kept the stoic resignation regarding death, as the narrator still accepts death. The poem concludes with an epitaph, which reinforces Gray's indirect and reticent manner of writing. Although the ending reveals the narrator's repression of feelings surrounding his inevitable fate, it is optimistic. The epitaph describes faith in a "trembling hope" that he cannot know while alive.
In describing the narrator's analysis of his surroundings, Gray employed John Locke's philosophy of the sensations, which argued that the senses were the origin of ideas. Information described in the beginning of the poem is reused by the narrator as he contemplates life near the end. The description of death and obscurity adopts Locke's political philosophy as it emphasises the inevitability and finality of death. The end of the poem is connected to Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in that the beginning of the poem deals with the senses and the ending describes how we are limited in our ability to understand the world. The poem takes the ideas and transforms them into a discussion of blissful ignorance by adopting Locke's resolution to be content with our limited understanding. Unlike Locke, the narrator of the poem knows that he is unable to fathom the universe, but still questions the matter.
On the difference between the obscure and the renowned in the poem, scholar David Cecil argued, "Death, he perceives, dwarfs human differences. There is not much to choose between the great and the humble, once they are in the grave. It may be that there never was; it may be that in the obscure graveyard lie those who but for circumstance would have been as famous as Milton and Hampden." However, death is not completely democratic because "if circumstances prevented them from achieving great fame, circumstances also saved them from committing great crimes. Yet there is a special pathos in these obscure tombs; the crude inscriptions on the clumsy monuments are so poignant a reminder of the vain longing of all men, however humble, to be loved and to be remembered."
The poem ends with the narrator turning towards his own fate, accepting his life and accomplishments. The poem, like many of Gray's, incorporates a narrator who is contemplating his position in a transient world that is mysterious and tragic. Although the comparison between obscurity and renown is commonly seen as universal and not within a specific context with a specific political message, there are political ramifications for Gray's choices. Both John Milton and John Hampden spent time near the setting of Stoke Poges, which was also affected by the English Civil War. The poem's composition could also have been prompted by the entrance of Prince William, Duke of Cumberland into London or by a trial of Jacobite nobility in 1746.
Many scholars, including Lonsdale, believe that the poem's message is too universal to require a specific event or place for inspiration, but Gray's letters suggest that there were historical influences in its composition. In particular, it is possible that Gray was interested in debates over the treatment of the poor, and that he supported the political structure of his day, which was to support the poor who worked but look down on those that refused to. However, Gray's message is incomplete, because he ignored the poor's past rebellions and struggles. The poem ignores politics to focus on various comparisons between a rural and urban life in a psychological manner. The argument between living a rural life or urban life lets Gray discuss questions that answer how he should live his own life, but the conclusion of the poem does not resolve the debate as the narrator is able to recreate himself in a manner that reconciles both types of life while arguing that poetry is capable of preserving those who have died. It is probable that Gray wanted to promote the hard work of the poor but to do nothing to change their social position. Instead of making claims of economic injustice, Gray accommodates differing political views. This is furthered by the ambiguity in many of the poem's lines, including the statement "Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood" that could be read either as Oliver Cromwell being guiltless for violence during the English Civil War or merely as villagers being compared to the guilty Cromwell.
The epitaph describes faith in a "trembling hope" that he cannot know while alive
So "trembling", is that the God believer?
Something you cannot possibly know whilst alive, do you "tremble" in that it is fantasy?
Atheists are sure footed.. for sure.