Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”
This reference comes near the end of episode 6, Hades, at line 940 in the Gabler edition. Oddly, Bloom’s inner monologue attributes the poem to either William Wordsworth or Thomas Campbell. That he is uncertain of who between those two wrote the poem, and is furthermore wrong either way, puts Bloom two degrees away from being correct. Besides being another example of Leopold being almost correct in most of his various references, the fact that Gray lived and wrote in an entirely different time period (1700-1770) than Wordsworth and Campbell (about 1770-1850) may reveal a subconscious favoritism of Bloom’s towards the latter time period.
As for the poem itself, given its focus on burial and mortality, it makes sense for Bloom to think of during Hades as he attends Dignam’s burial. Curious, however, is the difference in how “Elegy” treats death as opposed to how the characters in Ulysses treat death. Throughout the entirety of Hades, Dignam and mortality actually take a backseat to the interactions between Cunningham, Power, Dedalus Sr., and Bloom. Furthermore, most of the thoughts Bloom does have about death are about the odder aspects, such as whether a corpse bleeds or not if cut and why there isn’t a telephone in each coffin in case of an accidental live burial. This is in stark contrast to the poem that Bloom briefly touches on in his stream of consciousness – Elegy is somber and contemplates some of the grimmest aspects of death. Gray writes about how the men in the graves will never again see their wives, nor have the pleasure of their children climbing up to their lap, nor even the pleasure of simple work. If we assume that Bloom is in fact familiar with the poem (which is not a necessity given his mistake in author and time period), then there may be a subtext throughout Hades commenting on the more sobering aspects of death that the characters, and indeed even the caretaker with his joke, tend to neglect.