Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles, 1966

Everyone knows the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby and the stories they tell. Thanks to The Beatles, Father McKenzie and Eleanor Rigby are memorialised. But Eleanor Rigby is about more than just two, otherwise forgotten, people; it is a less polemic forerunner to Pulp’s Common People, and a haunting lament for ordinary, lost, and unnoticed post-war lives. The ending refrain reverberates beyond the semi-fictional characters to many more disaffected, disparate, and unacknowledged existences.

But The Beatles were less radical than they appear to be. Some 215 years earlier, Thomas Gray had written his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard in which he discusses the fate of the “rude forefathers of the hamlet” who “sleep” in their “narrow cell[s]”. The link between the song and the poem has not gone unnoticed but commentators have seen it as some kind of bizarre coincidence; an unexpected indication of unity between post-war ordinary lives and those of rural labourers in the 18th century.

The similarities are more than coincidence. Gray acknowledges these rural lives of “destiny obscure” and their thwarted possibilities. His lamentations over “some mute inglorious Milton” and the death of the “youth to Fortune and Fame unknown” miraculously prefigure Father McKenzie’s unheard intellectual efforts in the form of a sermon. His evocation of the village gravestones – “Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse” – is an eerily exact parallel to Eleanor Rigby; she is never able to move beyond the church in which she is married and buried.

The speaker in Gray’s poem sees the “uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture” of the tombstones as poetic inspiration; the poem even ends with an epitaph written to the poet-speaker figure. Paul McCartney claims to have been inspired by a shop named “Rigby and Evans”, but theories abound about a gravestone for the “real” Eleanor Rigby in a churchyard in Liverpool.

And yet, while The Beatles’ version is unremittingly tragic – the sense of solitude and purposeless is repeated in every note of the song – Gray respects the labour of those he is writing about. His call to “let not Ambition mock their useful toil” is gratingly patronising, but he acknowledges a use, a purpose, and a role for those villagers he catalogues; their lives have ended now, but they strove to achieve something while they lived. Such a sense of direction is denied in The Beatles’ version; McCartney’s world appears far murkier than Gray’s.

It is hard to seriously suggest that Eleanor Rigby is an academic attempt at repackaging an 18th century elegy for a 20th century audience, but it is more than just a good song. It forms a part of an intellectual tradition which simultaneously acknowledges and devalues ordinary lives in seeing their ordinariness as something to lament. If the film Yesterday (2019) was about a man who successfully manages to plagiarise The Beatles’ entire repertoire, perhaps The Day Before Yesterday (TBC) could be about a sell-out stadium tour of songs derived from Gray’s poems. A Bard Day’s Night, anyone?

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