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Graveyard poetry was a movement that occurred during the 18th century, originating from a collective of British poets. This type of poetry mainly concentrated upon topics of “death and bereavement” (“Graveyard School”) as well as mortality and religion, and explored the concept of death or motifs of death through many scopes. Whether they found death to be a mystical, awful, spiritual, beautiful, gruesome, or simply necessary process, they used poetry to “express the sorrow and pain of bereavement, evoke the horror of death’s physical manifestations, and suggest the transitory nature of human life” (“Graveyard School”) and found enlightenment in return.
This can be found in the works of many poets, including Thomas Parnell, Robert Blair, Edward Young, and Thomas Gray, whose poems will be discussed in the latter portion of this essay. It is also notable that a large portion of the graveyard poets were religious writers, many of whom attempted to explore morality and the darkness of the human heart through their works.
Despite this form of poetry being deemed a poetic era by many, Eric Parisot argues in “Piety, Poetry, And The Funeral Sermon: Reading Graveyard Poetry In The Eighteenth Century” that critics regard this label as problematic due to the school’s broad and unspecified qualifications for a poem to be considered a “graveyard” poem. At its narrowest, its core features are “the transience of life, the imminence of death, and … the consolation accorded by a Christian afterlife” (Parisot 174), all of which can be found in the aforementioned four poems.
However, the limitations within this topic make it difficult to fully determine whether other poems, aside from using funeral and cemetery imagery, fall within the “graveyard school” trope, thus making the history of graveyard poetry both murky and confusing.
Nonetheless, it is commonly believed that Robert Blair was the frontrunner in creating this era of graveyard poetry through his work “The Grave.” Blair, a Scottish poet and minister, combined poetic storytelling and passionate preaching to create this uneven, blank verse poem. Within its tone of admiration and rejoice, a “blend of Scottish ghoulishness and brisk sermonizing is presented in Shakespearean rhythms with a certain natural cheerfulness” (“Blair, Robert.”). Throughout this poem, Blair makes references to several opposites. Such references occur early on in the poem, like “the sun” and “the shade,” as well as “the city” and “the hermitage” in lines 1-2. This echoes the opposite of life and death present throughout the poem, and how these two states go hand-in-hand, similar to the necessary opposites found within his friend and fellow poet William Blake’s works.
Believing that “the task be [his] / To paint the gloomy horrors of the tomb; / Th’ appointed place of rendezvous, where all / These trav’llers meet” (“The Grave” 4-7), Blair displays a sense of obligation to write this poem about death and, despite its heavy topic, compares the finality of death to a meeting place, therefore simplifying this complex concept without erasing the horrors and absolution of death. Moreover, the consistent use of exclamations, such as “Dull Grave!” (“The Grave” 111), in this poem adds a dramatic flair to Blair’s words. This constitutes to the poem’s passionate, almost aggressive tone, reminiscent of the loud proclamations of worship commonly heard in sermons. In lines 111-155, Blair marvels at a grave—a metaphor for death—and its ability to strip people of their livelihood, spoiling “the dance of youthful blood” (Blair 111), and reduce them to their most original and equal state, regardless of who they were prior to death. Whether comedians or valiant warriors, none of that will matter or be remembered in the face of death. Consequently, Blair turns death into a tangible force that takes over each and every one of us, rather than being a passive state of decomposition.
Similarly, another work commonly compared with Blair’s “The Grave” is Edward Young’s The Complaint, also known as Night Thoughts. Young, an “English poet, dramatist, and literary critic” (“Young, Edward.”), attempts to find consolation through theodicy through the nine nights in Night Thoughts. While the first five nights contain a formulative description of grief, the latter four feature Christian morals and principles. Also, as previously stated, graveyard poetry was largely considered to be “significant as early precursors of the Romantic movement” (“Graveyard School”). This belief is exemplified within many of the poem’s descriptions, such as the following image from lines 18-20 of “Night I”:
Night, sable goddess! from her ebon throne,
In ray less majesty, now stretches forth
Her leaden sceptre o’er a slumb’ring world.
Through comparing the evening sky to an ethereal goddess, Young personifies a scene of nature and metaphorically connects it to a mystical figure, features of which are only a few among the many Romanticism is composed of. Literature from the Romantic era also tended to focus on themes of personal freedom and supernatural elements. This can be seen in lines 56-61 of “Night II” as Young poses the rhetorical questions regarding the significance of life and death in the general scope of things:
Is this our duty, wisdom, glory, gain?
(These heaven benign in vital union binds)
And sport we like the natives of the bough,
When vernal suns inspire? amusement reigns
Man’s great demand: to trifle is to live:
And is it then a trifle, too, to die?
The word “trifle” is used as a verb in the line “Man’s great demand: to trifle is to live” (Young 60), referring to the act of behaving frivolously and without respect. However, “trifle” is a noun in line 61, either alluding to something trivial and insignificant or the British dessert, reining in our senses of taste and smell through this image of something sweet. Contrast is then built when the use of “trifle” as a dessert is compared with the first line of the above quotation. “Is [death] our duty, wisdom, glory, gain” (Young 56)? Or is an unimportant matter? Or perhaps our salvation and reward? These questions regarding existentialism and our purposes in life therefore reflect the thoughts that ran through Young’s mind at the time, thus perfectly embodying his aptly-named poem, Night Thoughts (“An excerpt from Edward Young”).
The third poem frequently associated with the graveyard school of poetry, as well as the birth of Gothic literature, is “A Night-Piece on Death” by Thomas Parnell. Parnell was an Anglo-Irish poet and clergyman, who did not reach much fame for his works until after his death. Like Blair’s “The Grave”, Parnell’s “Night-Piece on Death” has also been accredited as the first notable work by the graveyard school of poets (“Thomas Parnell Biography”), subsequently adding to the school’s unclear beginnings. Regardless, “Night-Piece” is one of the two rhyming pieces in the four selected poems featured in this discussion, with both the rhyming poems making use of highly descriptive couplets.
Similar to Young’s Night Thoughts, “Night-Piece” is immensely visually appealing. From the “blue taper’s trembling light” (Parnell 1) to the “blaze of day” (Parnell 90), imagery regarding light consisting appears within this poem. The scene begins with the persona poring over the works of “schoolmen and the sages” (Parnell 4) whose “books from wisdom widely stray, / Or point at best the longest way” (Parnell 5-6), unfortunately unable to guide him into the direction he was hoping for. This situation, however, convinces the persona to delve into the depths of nature and experience what he’s searching for in all its might, glory, and absolute beauty in lines 9-16 of the poem:
How deep yon azure dyes the sky,
Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie,
While through their ranks in silver pride
The nether crescent seems to glide.
The slumb’ring breeze forgets to breathe,
The lake is smooth and clear beneath,
Where once again the spangled show
Descends to meet our eyes below.
The personification within “the slumb’ring breeze [that] forgets to breathe” (Parnell 13) brings the scenery to life, bringing activity to the seemingly inactive nighttime landscape. With conscious diction choices like how the “azure dyes the sky” (Parnell 6), and the “orbs of gold” (Parnell 7) and “nether crescent” (Parnell 9) glow, Parnell successfully paints an incredibly memorable picture of nature’s silent beauty. Carrying on with this serene view, the persona then discovers a gravesite to the left of the lake mentioned in the quote above, as described in lines 39-46:
The marble tombs that rise on high,
Whose dead in vaulted arches lie,
Whose pillars swell with sculptured stones,
Arms, angels, epitaphs and bones,
These (all the poor remains of state)
Adorn the rich, or praise the great;
Who, while on earth in fame they live,
Are senseless of the fame they give.
This selection of text evokes similar ideas to those expressed in Blair’s “The Grave:” There is no distinction between the dead. While we practically worship the rich and famous, and commemorate their success even after their death, their reputation is subsequently removed from their control and does virtually nothing in changing their state of being. Lines 39-42 of this poem also dart between the beauty of the tombs and the reality behind the architecture. By doing so, Parnell refuses to completely romanticize the sights found in the cemetery, therefore paying his respects to those deceased. Lines 79-90, on the other hand, form an optimistic closing to “Night-Pieces,” thus ending the poem on a positive note instead:
As men who long in prison dwell,
With lamps that glimmer round the cell,
Whene’er their suffering years are run,
Spring forth to greet the glitt’ring sun:
Such joy, though far transcending sense,
Have pious souls at parting hence.
On earth, and in the body placed,
A few, and evil, years they waste;
But when their chains are cast aside,
See the glad scene unfolding wide,
Clap the glad wing, and tow’r away,
And mingle with the blaze of day.
As the persona points out, men who have had to endure long-term imprisonment long for the day their freedom comes, and are therefore content and sincere when their time runs out. In spite of the few years they spent committing crime, they will truly find the freedom they seek once they let go of this personal baggage. This, perhaps, does not only serve as Parnell’s message to his readers that living life to the fullest means moving on from past mistakes, but also becomes the wisdom the persona was thus searching for at the start of the poem.
Finally, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is last of the four poems most frequently attributed to the graveyard school’s top famous works. Written by a man who was considered to be the second most important poet of his time—preceded only by Alexander Pope—the lack of publications for Gray’s works still confuses scholars to this day. Even so, this does not diminish the importance of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in shaping graveyard poetry into the definition it adheres to to this day. This poem is where ‘the meditative, philosophical tendencies of graveyard poetry found their fullest expression … [through] a dignified, gently melancholy elegy celebrating the graves of humble villagers and suggesting that the lives of rich and poor alike “lead but to the grave”’ (“Graveyard School”) from lines 33-40:
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Through the former stanza, Gray retains the sermon- or prayer-like tones found in the other poems previously discussed. The persona speaking within the lines carries a respectful but accepting voice. While he commends the poor for their sacrifices and efforts during their short-lived lives, he also points out the superficiality of wealth and power, thus presenting his view that neither lifestyle will last as they both lead directly and eventually to death. Even in the earlier lines 17-24, there are references to this unity between the rich and poor in death:
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
These two stanzas once again follow the comparison between the lives of the poor and those of the rich respectively. Despite their state in a “lowly bed” (Gray 20), the poor got to live a full and happy life surrounded by creatures and sounds of nature before succumbing to death. Similarly, the rich were surrounded by love during their lifetime, and although they will never experience such a wonderful thing again, it gave them a life of happiness that is stronger than the reaches of death.
To conclude, although the validity of graveyard poetry has been questioned by various critics, it is undeniable that the poems that fall within this group, such as Robert Blair’s “The Grave,” Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, Thomas Parnell’s “A Night-Piece on Death,” and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” have sufficiently influenced the Romantic and Gothic eras of literature and are irreplaceable as poems that have left imprints on poetic history. Even with varying forms and rhyme schemes or lack thereof, they have demonstrated similar qualities and themes regarding death, religion, and personal fulfillment. Therefore, while some may consider the graveyard school’s vague specifications lacking in clarity, it can also be interpreted as room for creative freedom and the individuality that ultimately sets them apart from one another.
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