Graveyard Poets Essay - Critical Essays

Graveyard Poets


Graveyard Poets

The Graveyard poets were a group of eighteenth-century English poets who emphasized the subjects of mortality, death, and bereavement in their writings. Their poems describe death's physical manifestations, evoke subjective responses such as fear and horror, and contemplate phenomena associated with death such as darkness, the tomb, death's odors, and ghosts. While reveling in the images of death and the grave, the poets in the Graveyard school sought to describe the trappings of death in a way such that the reader would gain an appreciation of death as a transitional phase. In the words of William Lyon Phelps, the poems of the Graveyard school reflect “the joy of gloom, the fondness for bathing one's temples in the dank night air and the musical delight of the screech owl's shriek.”

Much of the poetry of the Graveyard school can be seen as a response to, and development from what has been termed the disease of the seventeenth century: melancholy. Melancholy, as understood in the seventeenth century, and expressed in countless literary works, involved a preoccupation with death and the vanity of life, sometimes accompanied by a philosophic detachment or religious optimisim regarding the next life, and an emphasis on withdrawal, solitude, and contemplation. While the works of the Graveyard poets include many of these elements, they also expand the range of emotional responses to death to include grief, tenderness, tearfulness, nostalgia, and other states of mind, which at times verge on an aesthetic pleasure in the contemplation of mortality. They also introduce detailed imagery evoking the grave and the tomb, and lay stress on subjective experience, often incorporating personal material from the poet's own life. In their emphasis on the personal and individual, the Graveyard poets are often viewed as precursors of Romanticism. In addition, the Graveyard school, with its depictions of graves, churchyards, night, death, and ghosts, has been seen as laying the groundwork for Gothic literature.

Robert Blair's The Grave (1743) is credited with inspiring many of the works of the Graveyard poets, and this work, along with Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1745), set the standard for the school. Thomas Gray's “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), a meditation on the graves of humble and unknown villagers, is considered a superior example of Graveyard poetry and is perphaps the movement's most famous production. The influence of the Graveyard school eventually spread to America, where its themes informed such notable poems as Philip Freneau's “The House of Night” (1779) and William Cullen Bryant's “Thanatopsis” (1817).

Representative Works

Robert Blair
The Grave (poetry) 1743

William Cullen Bryant
“Thanatopsis” (poetry) 1817

Philip Freneau
“The House of Night” (poetry) 1779
“The Indian Burying Ground” (poetry) 1787

Thomas Gray
“Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” (poetry) 1748
“An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (poetry) 1751

Thomas Parnell
“A Hymn to Contentment” (poetry) 1714
“Night-Piece on Death” (poetry) 1722

Thomas Warton
“The Pleasures of Melancholy” (poetry) 1747

Edward Young
Night Thoughts (poetry) 1742-45

Criticism: Origins And Development

SOURCE: Reed, Amy Louise. “The Revolt Against Melancholy.” In The Background of Gray's Elegy, 80-139. New York: Columbia University Press, 1924.

[In the following essay, Reed argues that the birth of Graveyard poetry, such as Thomas Gray's “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard,” stemmed from a reaction to what some in the seventeenth century claimed was a disease, melancholy, and discusses the influences of the Graveyard poets.]

Seventeenth century writers on melancholy themes continued to be read during the first quarter of the eighteenth. Pomfret, the favorite of the moment, produced in 1700 not only the pleasantly pagan Choice, but also a quite orthodox Prospect of Death. Charles Gildon's New Miscellany, issued in 1701, contained Lady Winchilsea's The Spleen and Death. Roscommon's Prospect of Death, previously known in manuscript only, was first published in 1704. Norris's A Collection of Miscellanies were in their fourth edition in 1706. Oldham was reprinted in 1722. Raleigh's Remains were reissued in 1702, and Drummond's Works, in a beautiful quarto edition, Edinburgh, 1711, brought to mind again A Cypresse Grove. Two elegies which had appeared on the death of Queen Mary in 1695 were still finding readers. One of these, reprinted in 1701 and pirated in 1709, The Temple of Death, by John Sheffield, Marquis of Normanby and Duke of Buckingham, has an opening stanza with a “horrid” description imitated from Aeneid VI, 237-42.

A dreadful Vale lies in a Desart Isle,
On which indulgent Heaven did never smile.
There a thick Grove of Aged Cypress Trees,
Which none without an awful horror sees,
Into its wither'd Arms, depriv'd of Leaves,
Whole Flocks of ill-presaging Birds receives.
Poisons are all the Plants the Soil will bear,
And Winter is the only Season there.
Millions of Graves cover the spacious Field,
And Springs of Blood a thousand Rivers yield:
Whose Streams opprest with Carcasses and Bones,
Instead of gentle Murmurs, pour forth Groans.(1)

The other, Congreve's Mournful Muse of Alexis, reappeared in 1713 in A Select Collection of Modern Poems by Several Hands, Dublin, 1713. Alexis and Menalcas are the speakers; the Queen is called Pastora, and there is a refrain dimly reminiscent of those in Greek pastorals:

I mourn Pastora dead, let Albion mourn,
And Sable clouds her chalky cliffs adorn.

Plants, birds, and beasts of ill omen are forbidden to approach Pastora's burial place:

There may no dismal Yew, nor Cypress grow,
Nor Holly-bush, nor bitter Elder's Bough;
Let each unlucky Bird far build his Nest,
And distant Dens receive each howling Beast;
Let Wolves be gone, and Ravens put to flight,
With hooting Owls, and Bats, that hate the Light,
And let the sighing Doves their Sorrows bring,
And Nightingales in sweet Complainings sing.(2)

The interest in Lucretius continued, so that Creech's translation had a second edition in 1714, with very full notes by another hand, and a third edition in 1722, while the passages Dryden had translated were republished in Tonson's reissue (1702-1709) of Dryden's Miscellany Poems with additions, in six volumes. Lucretius was also thoroughly advertised by Blackmore's attack in Creation, 1712.

The continued controversy over the immortality of the soul, which involved also the question of the right to commit suicide, may have caused the reprinting of John Donne's prose Biathanatos: a Declaration of that Paradox or Thesis that self Homicide is not so naturally Sin, that it may never be otherwise.3 A refutation of Donne's arguments by J. Adams, entitled An Essay concerning Self-Murther, was twice printed in 1700.

Lady Winchilsea was still writing. In 1703 she was moved to describe, in The Hurricane, a great storm4 which wrought havoc on land and sea. As Dr. Reynolds observes,5 this poem, in spite of the handicap of the Cowleian ode form, has passages of true description, conveying the author's feeling of delighted awe at the mighty massing of clouds and waters and the destructive power of the winds. The edition of her Poems in 1713 made public her best poem according to modern standards, A Nocturnal Reverie. While this descriptive piece is really an expression of joy in the sights and sounds and solitude of night, we must remember that, in her own time, this sort of pleasure would have been reckoned as evidence of a melancholy temperament.

The whole poem conveys perfectly the sense of stillness, and of a half transparent dusk. One feels rather than sees the animals happily bustling about, their presence revealed by sounds only. There are admirable realistic touches—the freshened grass straightening itself, the sounds of the grazing of a horse and the nibbling of sheep, the consciousness of odors unnoticed by day, the cry of the curlew, and the call of the partridge. Conventional, on the other hand, are the references to the zephyr, Philomel, the owl, the moon, the falling waters, the ancient ruin showing through the gloom, the compliment to the Countess of Salisbury, and the turning of the mind to muse on

Something too high for Syllables to speak.

Yet, as Dr. Reynolds notes, this is melancholy with a difference.6 In her youth, her personal disappointments had found expression in melancholy poetry in the seventeenth century manner. In later life, her own natural goodness, the kindness of her friends and her husband, and the healing influence of nature brought about a sort of Miltonic calm, a mood pensive but by no means sad or gloomy.

The Poems of Lady Mary Chudleigh (Marissa), published in 1703,7 though doubtless written and read in manuscript some years before that, are chiefly of the melancholy sort. In her Preface to The Song of the Three Children Paraphrased she shows much interest in the recently accepted theories of the origin and nature of the universe, combined with a lack of accurate knowledge to which she is, as a mere woman, serenely resigned. The poem is a long (and tiresome) nature rhapsody, including a description of the Day of Judgment. Many of her shorter poems, however, have the charm of personal revelation.

In her Pindaric ode On the Vanities of this Life, she wonders why anyone desires “the trifle Life,” since it is only a succession of miseries. She describes the many futile ways of pursuing happiness, which, she believes, consists in obedience to virtue and serenity of mind, and can therefore be perfectly attained only in Heaven.

Such as a lasting Happiness would have,
          Must seek it in the peaceful Grave,
Where free from Wrongs the Dead remain:
Life is a long continu'd Pain,
          A lingering slow Disease,
Which Remedies a while may ease,
          But cannot work a perfect Cure:
          Musick with its enchanting Lays,
          May for a while our Spirits raise;
                    Honour and Wealth may charm the Sense,
                    And by their pour'ful Influence
                    May gently lull our Cares asleep;
                    But when we think ourselves secure,
And fondly hope we shall no future Ills endure,
                    Our griefs awake again,
And with redoubl'd Rage augment our Pain.

She remarks with great common sense that the exercise of reason will not dispel real grief.

The most that Reason can, is to persuade the Mind
                    Its Troubles decently to bear,
And not permit a Murmur or a Tear,
To tell th' inquiring World that any such are there.

Books, too, are unsatisfactory, because there is always so much more to know than one can possibly get at by reading. In short,

The Phoenix Truth wrapt up in Mists doth lie,
Not to be clearly seen before we die;

The Resolution asserts her intention to retire to a loved retreat and give herself up to the delights and the improving influence of reading. The Resolve is another Retirement poem. Solitude begins:

Happy are they who when alone
                    Can with themselves converse,
Who to their Thoughts are so familiar grown,
They cou'd with silent Joy think all their Hours away,
And still think on, till the confining Clay,
                    Fall off, and nothing's left behind
Of drossy Earth, nothing to clog the Mind.

But very few persons (as Cowley, following Cicero, remarked) are fit for solitude.

“Taken as a whole,” says Dr. Reynolds,8 “the poems bitterly inveigh against life with its blighting sorrows, its fleeting, unreal joys, its injustice, its black despairs. The only break in the gloom comes in short periods of absorption in books, or in occasional religious ecstasies.”

On Matthew Prior, Lady Winchilsea's more famous contemporary, personal misfortune had the effect of driving him into melancholy. He was naturally of a buoyant temperament, and in the greater part of his work,9 consisting of love poems, official “odes,” compliments to friends, and satiric tales or fables, his acknowledged master is Horace. Yet as early as 1702, he had translated the Emperor Hadrian's Animula blandula vagula, calling his version The Dying Christian to his Soul;10 he admired Dr. Sherlock's Practical Discourse Concerning Death, and, in the 1718 edition of his Poems, published for the first time two long poems on serious subjects, the composition of which had occupied him a number of years.

In Alma, a poem in three cantos, the Hudibrastic manner prevents real consideration of the theme, the nature and origin of the soul, although one can feel that Prior is genuinely speculating on the subject. But Solomon on the Vanity of the World, a poem in three books, is serious reflection of a most melancholy kind. One of its “mottoes,” from Bacon's Advancement of Learning, states that “The bewailing of Man's Miseries hath been elegantly and copiously set forth by Many, in the Writings as well of Philosophers, as Divines. And it is both a pleasant and a profitable Contemplation.” Prior's Preface echoes the utterances of Cowley, Dennis, and the other reformers of poetry in preferring scriptural to classic themes. His own effort has been to collect out of the great treasure-house of the books commonly attributed to Solomon “such Observations, and Apothegms, as most particularly tend to the proof of that great Assertion, laid down in the beginning of the Ecclesiastes, All Is Vanity.” Thus the general tenor of his poem is that “The Pleasures of Life do not compensate the Miseries: Age steals upon us unawares; and Death, as the only Cure of our Ills, ought to be expected but not feared.” This is, of course, simply a restating of Lucretius's Complaint of Life, and lines 110 and following in Book III of Solomon are actually a direct paraphrase of Lucretius. The only really beautiful lines are certain lyric passages in the third book which recall Fletcher and the late Elizabethans rather than his scriptural models (lines 575 ff.).

This change of tone in Prior may be attributed partly to the change of taste in the society around him, which demanded of its poets first of all orthodox piety, and partly to his own personal misfortunes, his downfall, imprisonment, and enforced withdrawal from public life, which increased the seriousness latent beneath his gaiety.11 His earlier poetry had been lightly lyrical but the Preface to Solomon, with its references to Homer, Virgil, Tasso, Ronsard, and Spenser, indicates that, like other men of his time, he yearned to make an impression as an epic writer. He seems uncertain whether his work, which is cast in three soliloquies with narrative introductions, is actually “didascalic, or heroic.” We of today are in no doubt that it is an extremely dull, didactic poem, in pseudo-epic style. Prior's reverse of fortune has apparently thrown him back into the religious vein of the seventeenth century, and into the epic form of expression.

Meantime, John Philips, one of Pope's circle, had done something both to stimulate admiration for Milton's versification, and to excite ridicule for pensive poetry by his clever parody, The Splendid Shilling. This piece,12 in fluent blank verse, with Miltonic phrases and imagery, is in its plan a burlesque of Il Penseroso, describing one long, unhappy day in the life of a poet in hourly expectation of being arrested for debt. Its imitation of Milton was, however, so skilful as to call attention to the excellence of blank verse as a medium for reflective poetry.

                                                  But when Nocturnal Shades
This World invelop, and th' inclement Air
Persuades Men to repel benumming Frosts
With pleasant Wines, and crackling blaze of Wood;
Me Lonely sitting, nor the glimm'ring Light
Of Make-weight Candle, nor the joyous Talk
Of lovely Friend delights; distress'd, forlorn,
Amid the horrors of the tedious Night,
Darkling I sigh, and feed with dismal Thoughts
My anxious Mind; or sometimes mournful Verse
Indite, and sing of Groves, and Myrtle Shades.

By such pleasing irreverence Philips sounded the first note of the anti-melancholy movement in poetry, but for the time being there were no new themes to take the place of those old and tried subjects of poetical meditation, the evils of life, the terrors (or perhaps the charms) of death, the happiness and profit of retirement.13 Moreover, the old themes were given a fresh impulse by a new poet of genuine, if limited talent, in the person of Isaac Watts, whose Horae Lyricae appeared in 1706.

In his Preface, Watts makes deliberate pretensions to be a serious poet filling a long-felt want for noble lyric.14 He approves Dennis's Proposal of Criticism for the reform of poetry. He considers that Cowley and Blackmore by their sacred epics have proved “that the obstacles of attempting Christian Poesy are broken down, and the vain pretence of its being impracticable is experimentally confuted.” He believes that lyrics on sacred subjects would be equally possible, and would be effective aids to the preacher in diffusing virtue and alluring souls to God. The shorter odes of Cowley and Blackmore, and a few of Norris's “essays in verse” are cited as successful efforts in this direction.15 He asserts that poets are in duty bound to furnish pleasure of a safe kind for young ladies and gentlemen who like poetry, and who may for lack of legitimate amusement be driven to the “dangerous diversions of the stage and impure sonnets.” His own Poems Sacred to Virtue are so intended, for he says, “I thought it lawful to take hold of any Handle of the Soul to lead it away betimes from vicious Pleasures.”

The Pindaric odes and other lyrics that follow are quite in the seventeenth century religious vein. The influence of the Georgics is traceable in the descriptive parts of the poem, Divine Judgments, the theme of which is that all good or ill comes to man by order of God. God sends the intense cold winter, when

The grazing Ox lows to the Gelid Skies,
Walks o'er the Marble Meads with withering Eyes,
Walks o'er the solid Lakes, snuffs up the wind, and

The poem then makes a flight to the polar world, and there mourns the death by cold of prisoners in chaingangs.16 Even the atheist must tremble at the thought of God's omnipotence. Drought, disease, and dearth are also God's weapons. The poet exults in the thought of the terrible exhibitions of divine power against guilt.

Hail, Whirlwinds, Hurricanes and Floods,
                    That all the leafy Standards strip,
                    And bear down with a mighty sweep,
The Riches of the Fields, and Honours of the Woods.
                    Storms that ravage o'er the Deep,
                    And bury Millions in the Waves;(17)
                    Earthquakes, that in Midnight-Sleep
Turn Cities into Heaps, and make our Beds our

The poem ends with the aspiration that God will reassure him as to his own fate. In Death and Eternity we have the usual seventeenth century emphasis on the sovereignty of Death.

The Tyrant, how he triumphs here,
          His Trophies spread around!
And Heaps of Dust and Bones appear
          Thro' all the hollow ground.
These Skulls what ghastly Figures now!
          How loathsome to the Eyes!
These are the Heads we lately knew
          So beauteous and so wise.

But what of the fate of the soul, embarked upon “that Sea without a Shore?” There it must sink or swim. Some friend, mourning our loss, shall remember that he too must die, and thus our very bones shall teach,

For Dust and Ashes loudest preach
                              The infinite Concern.

Watts's The Day of Judgment is too well known to need quotation. Its rhythmic sweep makes it an impressive poem, in spite of its grotesque images. After the manner of the milder religionists, Watts pauses at the brink of Hell and, without dwelling upon the torments of the damned, ends his poem peacefully and joyously with the song of the redeemed.

His poems on the vanity of life are numerous, but not especially noteworthy. Seeking A Divine Calm in a Restless World, imitated from Casimir Sobieski18 (IV, 28), ends with the thought,

Earth's but an Atom: Greedy Swords
Carve it amongst a thousand Lords. …

He also versifies “Remember thy Creator” from Ecclesiastes XII. The Hero's School of Morality recommends “A Turn among the Tombs” as a cure for ambition and an incitement to virtue, for tombs and monuments

Tell me a thousand mournful things
                    In melancholy Silence.

The Mourning Piece begins with a ghastly presentation of the old idea that all the world is a stage:

Life's a long Tragedy: This Globe the Stage,
Well fix'd, and well adorn'd with strong Machines,
Gay Fields, and Skies, and Seas: The Actors many;
The Plot immense: A Flight of Daemons sit
On every sailing Cloud with fatal Purpose;
And shoot across the Scene ten thousand Arrows,
Perpetual and unseen, headed with Pain,
With Sorrow, Infamy, Disease and Death.
The pointed Plagues fly silent through the Air,
Nor twangs the Bow, yet sure and deep the Wound.(19)

The idea of the poem as a whole is that the single man and woman run less risk of sorrow than those who are married. The latter suffer through each other and through their children. The second part of this poem is entitled The Bright Vision and presents the reverse argument, picturing the bliss of marriage, like that in Eden before the Fall.20 The poet confesses that when he wrote the gloomy first part,

                                                  Melancholy's hateful Form
Stood by in sable Robe.

When he surveyed the bright scene of life, she made him look through a dark, long tube with a deceitfully colored glass. Now Urania breaks the glass, and he sees marriage as it is, a happy state. In the third part, the accounts are balanced. The married lover must enjoy wedlock in moderation, not forgetting that ill may come.

Watts gives his own peculiar pietistic turn to the themes of contemplation and retirement. Meditation in a Grove is a sort of religious pastoral. In this grove, there is no Phyllis. Instead, the poet's passion for Jesus is carved on the bark of every tree for swains to admire. True Riches shows the influence of Milton's Il Penseroso both in meter and in idea. The poet cares not what to-morrow may bring. He longs not for riches, for he has treasures that cannot be taken away.

I'm a Kingdom of my own.

Then follows a description of the garden of his soul, where all delights are.

Yet the silly wand'ring Mind,
Loath to be too much confin'd,
Roves and takes her dayly Tours,
Coasting round the narrow Shores,
Narrow Shores of Flesh and Sense,
Picking Shells and Pebbles thence:
Or she sits at Fancy's Door,
Calling Shapes and Shadows t' her,
Foreign Visits still receiving,
And t' herself a Stranger living.
Never, never would she buy
Indian Dust or Tyrian Dye,
Never trade abroad for more
If she saw her native Store,
If her inward worth were known
She might ever live alone.

The Adventurous Muse is inspired by Milton's epic though in form it is a Pindaric ode.

Urania takes her morning Flight
Nor Rapin gives her Rules to fly,
Nor Purcell Notes to sing.

She flies straight to the Celestial Land, without even angelic guidance. While little skiffs humbly coast along mortal shores, afraid to lose sight of it, or of one another, Urania's poet cries:

Give me the Chariot whose divine Wheels
          Mark their own Rout, and unconfin'd
          Bound o'er the everlasting Hills,
And lose the Clouds below, and leave the Stars
          behind. …

His Muse

                    Pursues an unattempted Course,
                    Breaks all the Criticks' Iron Chains,
And bears to Paradise the raptur'd Mind.

There Milton dwells:

                                        The Mortal sung
Themes not presum'd by Mortal Tongue.

The poem ends with praise of Milton.

The enormous popularity of Watts,21 especially of The Judgment Day, is sufficient evidence of the continuance into the eighteenth century of the seventeenth century emphasis on the vanity of life and the horrors of death and judgment. While Watts consistently offset these ideas by the thought of the saving power of Jesus and the bliss of the good in heaven, popular imagination seized most readily upon the gruesome parts of his poetry, and fed therewith that religious melancholy which Burton had described in the Anatomy. We may suppose that the new edition of The Day of Doom22 by Michael Wigglesworth in 1711 was for the benefit of English readers, since there were by this time plenty of facilities for publishing in his New England home. This poem, in swinging ballad metre, describes with crude power the terrors of the great day. It takes the extreme Calvinist position in the determination of the elect, picturing with gusto the separation of friends and relatives, and the removal of unbaptized infants to “the easiest room in hell.”

It is evident that Edward Young's first poem, The Last Day, 1713,23 merely continues the seventeenth century tradition, though the usual themes are expanded at much greater length than by Flatman, Roscommon, Pomfret, Wigglesworth, or Watts. Nor is it necessary to look farther for his inspiration than to these poets, to Milton, and to the usual funeral and judgment day sermons.24

The poem, in three books, has a very rambling plan. In the opening lines of the first book, the poet prays for divine help to equal his theme.25 He calls upon man to view the wonder and the beauty of the universe, but reminds him that, at the terrible sound of the last trump, all this beauty will be destroyed. And if the earth, once so beautifully rolling in state through space, shall in an instant become “one universal ruin,” what of man himself? He must bow his proud head, acknowledge that he is made of clay,

                                        and curse his form
That speaks distinction from his sister-worm.(26)

He must beg God, who once sweat blood to save him, to defend him at this supreme moment.27 The wicked will beg the universe to hide them from the divine wrath,28 but the universe will cast them forth to meet their doom, as the ports hurl back a fleeing traitor to execution. But the good man will be cared for, as the leviathan cared for Jonah, when he was cast into the sea. Here follows an elaborate retelling, with long descriptions, of the whole story of Jonah, the excuse for which is the analogy with God's redemption of man.29

The greater part of the second book is taken up by the description of the way in which the graves give up their dead, the scattered bones rejoin each other, and the souls find their proper bodies. The poet here seems unnecessarily literal!

Now charnels rattle; scatter'd limbs and all
The various bones, obsequious to the call,
Self-mov'd, advance; the neck perhaps to meet
The distant head; the distant legs, the feet.
Dreadful to view, see thro' the dusky sky
Fragments of bodies in confusion fly.(30)

Westminster Abbey gives up its royal dead, and bodies arise from beneath other great buildings, for

The most magnificent and costly dome
Is but an upper chamber to a tomb.
No spot on earth but has supply'd a grave,
And human skulls the spacious ocean pave.(31)

Young describes the miscellaneous throng of Christians, Jews, Turks, and pagans before the judgment seat. None approach with more confidence than the philanthropists. Here Young inserts compliments to sundry benefactors mentioned by name, together with the pious hope that he, too, may be found among the saved.

The Judge now comes to judgment. The rest of the book consists of descriptions of the Son enthroned and contrasting descriptions of his lowly birth and humble life. The poet ranges from general pious aspirations and exclamations to detailed pictures like that of the unfurling of a great flag on which is a red cross which flushes the hills and dyes the ocean with red. At the end, he represents himself as kneeling in prayer for guidance in the right way through life.

The third book resumes the description of the judgment. The seal is broken, the book opened, the throngs divided into two parts; the seats of bliss above are described, and the boiling sulphurous furnace below. The condemned soul utters a cry of agony.

Who burst the barriers of my peaceful grave?
And cast me out into the wrath of God;
Where shrieks, the roaring flame, the rattling chain,
And all the dreadful eloquence of pain,
Our only song?

The guilty soul acknowledges his sin, but prays that the punishment may not be forever. If he had never been born, he could not have sinned.

Father of mercies! why from silent earth
Didst thou awake and curse me into birth?
Tear me from quiet, ravish me from night,
And make a thankless present of thy light!
Push into being a reverse of thee,
And animate a clod with misery?(32)
                    The beasts are happy! they come forth, and keep
Short watch on earth, and then lie down to sleep:
Pain is for man …(33)

He asks whether God can bear to

                    see me plunging in the dark abyss?
Calling thee Father in a sea of fire?
Or pouring blasphemies at thy desire?

He begs that God will not exalt himself by the misery of so insignificant a creature, and makes one last, small request:

When I have wept a thousand lives away;
When torment is grown weary of its prey;
When I have rav'd ten thousand years in fire,
Ten thousand thousand, let me then expire.

But his plea is in vain, for it comes too late.34 The blessed move to heaven to fill the places left vacant by the fall of Satan and his angels. Here the poet's strength fails him. He descends from the regions of bliss to paint

Dissolving elements and worlds in flame.

The world perishes like bubbles on a stream, or sparks scattered from a fire.35

In conclusion, the poet admonishes his readers that all this prospective dissolution is for man's sake, to put him in his proper place in a newly created and greater universe. Man, therefore, must begin now to look on himself with new respect, and live in a manner worthy of his great destiny. For his sake God hung the sun in the sky. When that service is done, “its beams shall fade away, And God shine forth in one eternal day.”36

The path marked out in the seventeenth century and pursued in the eighteenth by the dissenter, Watts, and the Anglican clergyman, Young, was followed presently by Aaron Hill, a man most influential in the world of letters at the moment, as friend of Pope and Swift, and much concerned with publishing enterprises.37 Hill was kind-hearted, serious-minded, and devoid of literary taste, just the man to foster, in secular and middle-class circles, the tendency to the free, the diffuse expression of the melancholy mood. Perhaps directly inspired by Young, whom he knew personally, and whose poem, The Last Day, was then in its second edition, Hill in 1721 wrote The Judgment Day.

The course of thought in the first four sections of this poem is precisely like Young's. Common to both are (1) the poet's claim that he is treating a subject far greater than those usually found in poetry, his sense of insufficiency for his task, and his calling upon the Lord for aid; (2) admiration of the beauty of the universe and pathos at the thought that it must all perish in the last day; (3) the description of the sound of the first trump and of the wandering of the disembodied spirits through space in answer to its call. At this point the resemblance ceases, and even up to this point, it is plain that Hill, although his poem is more logically constructed than Young's, has none of the emotional power of the latter.

The greater part of Hill's poem is taken up with a description, all too detailed and pseudo-scientific, of the destruction of the material universe. He has a very definite idea of the precise manner in which this is to happen. The sound of the first trump dissolves the world. The valleys heave upward, the forests are torn from their roots, the hills leap into the air, the rivers spout up, hissing as they meet the descending lightnings. Cities tumble in ruins, the mountains crumble, and the ocean swallows everything. This ocean then falls into the earth's center, which is so hot that the flood boils and recoils as steam. The steam rising towards the stars is followed by gigantic waves of liquid flame, which meet the sun, stars, and planets, throwing them into confusion. At the sound of the second and last trump, all these bodies clash and burn together in one great conflagration. The dark, cold planets, “hills of ice,” dance about in the fire like huge hail-stones, until they too are melted. At last the whole subsides into the burning lake of damnation and there is a horrible silence. Now, above all, arches the region of heaven, a great dome shining in gorgeous colors, silver, azure, black, red, and gold.

The voice of the Eternal is heard, bringing about the resurrection. Scattered atoms come together, forming new and everlasting bodies, and the souls, which, since the

Far, above all, thro' the dome's op'ning crown,
Broad, as a world, the almighty's Eye looks down.

death of the earthly body, have been wanderers through space, descend to enter these. Adam now beholds his whole race; Caesar and Cato meet, as do the martyred Charles and his murderers.38 Here the poet's “fancy” evidently fails him, and he hurries his conclusion. The Saviour calls the righteous to bliss; they obey and pass beyond the poet's sight. The close is didactic. Virtuous action is better than poetical composition; let action then be henceforth the author's sphere.

All has been said, that's worth a wise man's ear,
But much may be performed that's greatly new.

The grotesqueness of all this to modern readers is apparent. The poem is verbally lurid without being really terrible. Especially absurd are the lions riding about the hot ocean on floating oaks, the elephants swimming desperately, and the indignation of the whales when they find out that the water they have sucked in is “no cooling flood” and angrily spout the boiling liquid to heaven. On the other hand there are a few—a very few—bits that are effective in almost a Dantesque manner.

Thin troops of naked ghosts, long stript of clay,
That, wand'ring 'twixt the spheres …
Start, in loose shoals, and glide, like mists, away. …

The birds, skimming in frightened clouds over a darkening earth, are

Wind-shaken, scorch'd, and wash'd by driving rains
          . …

There is an absence of allegorical personages, and no dominant influence of any previous poet, not even Milton, is seen throughout most of the poem. Hill's imagination, such as it is, is his own. It is noticeable that he omits the torments of the damned, in contrast to Watts and Young, and that he does not much emphasize the fears of the human race. In fact, he seems in the midst of his terrific relation to take a certain pleasure in contemplating destruction on so grand a scale.

The rest of Hill's poetry shows, amidst the usual epistolary compliment, occasional verse, satire, and mildly gallant love verses, the usual variations. That is, he makes the orthodox Apology for Death, in which death is declared to be really a blessing, and writes one poem on Solitude, and one on The Happy Man. He has a number of scriptural paraphrases, and sends his imagination roaming in The Excursion of Fancy: A Pindaric Ode. None of these has any distinction. They are mentioned merely as indications of the kinds of reflective poems which were sure to be tried by any poet of the day. One bit of Hill's verse which has found its way into a modern anthology is entitled A Retrospect and represents his highest level. It is a Complaint of Life.

Oh life! deceitful lure of lost desires,
How short thy period, yet how fierce thy fires!
Scarce can a passion start, we change so fast
Ere new lights strike us, and the old are past.
Schemes following schemes, so long life's taste
That ere we learn to live, we live no more.
Who then can think, yet sigh to part with breath,
Or shun the healing hand of friendly death?(39)

The plague at Marseilles in 1720 frightened England thoroughly and may have united with the ever prevalent smallpox to bring the subjects of disease, death, and the uncertainty of the life of man prominently into mind. Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (1722) recalls in some of its details the descriptions of the plague at Athens in Lucretius. The new edition of Creech's Lucretius in 1722 has notes which call attention to Sprat's poem, The Plague at Athens.40

If we may accept the date assigned to William Broome's Melancholy: An Ode,41 it was written in 1723 though not published till 1729.42 The occasion was the death of a beloved daughter. Its opening and closing lines and its meter are evidently influenced by Milton's Il Penseroso. It has one line taken pretty directly from Hamlet, while stanzas five and six recall Job.

Open thy marble jaws, O tomb,
Thou earth, conceal me in thy womb!
And you, ye worms, this frame confound;
Ye brother reptiles of the ground!
O life, frail offspring of a day!
'T is puff'd with one short gasp away!
Swift as the short-lived flower it flies,
It springs, it blooms, it fades, it dies.

The remainder of the poem is a moralization on the certainty of unhappiness, and the natural depravity of man. “All is show,” says the poet,

All, to the coffin from our birth,
In this vast toy-shop of the earth.

At the end the poet renews his invocation to melancholy and bids adieu to the vain world.

In Broome's Poem on Death, Virgil and Milton furnish some of the descriptive detail. The opening lines are a description of Death enthroned.

High on a trophy, raised of human bones,
Swords, spears, and arrows, and sepulchral stones,
In horrid state she reigns! attendant ills
Besiege her throne, and when she frowns she kills;
Through the thick gloom the torch red-gleaming burns,
O'er shrouds, and sable palls, and mouldering urns;
While flowing stoles, black plumes, and scutcheons
An idle pomp around the silent dead:
Unawed by power, in common heap she flings
The scrips of beggars, and the crowns of kings:
Here gales of sighs, instead of breezes, blow,
And streams of tears for ever murmuring flow:
The mournful yew with solemn horror waves
His baleful branches, saddening even the graves:
Around, all birds obscene loud screaming fly,
Clang their black wings, and shriek along the sky.

The poet shudders with horror. An angel appears, and rebukes him for wishing to avoid the common fate when his “Saviour deigned to die.” The poet, abashed, reflects that life is

A breath, one single gasp must puff away
A short-lived flower. …

that existence is really not worth while, and that “the poor reptile, man,” is more blessed to die than to live, since by death

He mounts triumphant to eternal day.

In spite of the fact that histories of literature seldom mention Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe (Philomela—a pen name intended to remind readers of her patronym, Singer), both her prose and her poetry undoubtedly gratified popular taste throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth.43

Her first book appeared in 1696; while most of her verse was not published until after her death in 1737, it was evidently passed about in manuscript among a considerable circle much earlier. Her friend, Dr. Watts, paid her a poetical tribute in 1706 On her Divine Poems, and, in editing her Devout Exercises of the Heart, wrote a laudatory preface defending the “soft and passionate turn” of her religious meditations,44 and condoning the occasional confusion of her style. Her somewhat sensational prose work, Friendship in Death: in Twenty Letters from the Dead to the Living, was published in 1728 with a dedication to Young, whose Last Day and Paraphrase on part of the book of Job she admired, and whose tone in the Night Thoughts she curiously anticipates at times in her prose.

She was the daughter of a nonconformist and herself a Calvinist in belief; nevertheless she declined to be classed intellectually and socially with dissenters,45 and she had warm friends among Anglicans. Although herself a very quiet person, she knew some people of fashion. The Countess of Hertford46 was her chief correspondent, but her circle included also Lady Winchilsea, the Earl of Orrery, the poet Prior (who, tradition says, wished to marry her), Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, and Bishop Thomas Ken of Bath and Wells, besides Watts and Young already mentioned. The variety of these intimacies is one of the indications that the love of melancholy literature was a tie that bound together persons of very different birth, breeding, beliefs, and tastes.

Her temperament in youth was serious and pious, and became positively morbid after the death of her husband, Thomas Rowe, who was thirteen years younger than she, and to whose memory she was romantically devoted. She was fond of the retired life, of reading, drawing, music, and of writing, especially poems and letters. As a reader she showed a capacity equal to that of Jaques for sucking melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs. In fact from her wide reading, she selects for quotation in letters to friends solely the melancholy element, which she finds everywhere. She writes a letter explaining that Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth “gives the most solemn image in the world of the end of human greatness.” She recommends Cowley's Essays (Misc. Works, vol. II, p. 67) and copies out the soliloquy from Dryden's Aurengzebe (ibid. p. 240; ante p. 46). She finds nourishment for melancholy in Pascal and is much interested in Milton (pp. 58, 62).

Among her contemporaries she quotes the soliloquy in Addison's Cato, which in her Friendship in Death (p. 13) she says she is sure the author repents having written, since it influences people to commit suicide. She quotes also “Mr. Pope's poem on death,” i.e., The Dying Christain to his Soul (Misc. Works, vol. II, p. 178), admires William Law (p. 67), Watts's sermons and poems (pp. 68, 98, 113, 116) and Blackmore's lines,

What are distinction, honor, wealth and state,
The pomp of courts and triumphs of the great;
If dread of death still unsubdu'd remains,
And secret o'er the vanquish'd victor reigns,
Th' illustrious slave in endless thraldom bears,
A heavier chain than his led captive wears.

(p. 57)

Nicholas Rowe's tragedy of Jane Grey comes in for praise and quotation.

My soul grows out of tune, it loathes the world,
Sickens at all the noise and folly of it;
And I could sit me down in some dull shade,
Where lonely contemplation keeps her cave,
And dwells with hoary hermite; there forget myself,
There fix my stupid eyes upon the earth,
And muse away an age in deepest melancholy.

(pp. 36, 38)

She copies out a long poem by her friend Mr. Birch, On the Death of a Beloved Wife; written by her husband on her coffin (pp. 126-30), and another by Mr. Grove, On the Author's Recovery out of Sickness, containing descriptions of his state of mind on the approach of death, and such reflections as

Sure life is but a huddled dream,
And time a swift, deceitful stream,
This vain world a shining bubble
Only full of wind and trouble.

She is in raptures over Thomson's Seasons and Solitude (pp. 55, 79, 102, 178) and even over Sophonisba, “a noble tragedy; I can't help preferring it to Mr. Addison's Cato” (p. 111). Most of all perhaps, she took delight in Young's poetry (pp. 61, 106, 107), although she died before the publication of the Night Thoughts. She is enchanted by Shaftesbury's Moralists (p. 44), and versifies a part of it (vol. I, p. 143, On Love), although she confesses to not quite understanding it.47 These are only a few illustrations out of very many melancholy passages. Over and over again, she protests with Sophonisba,

I want to be alone, to find some shade,
Some solitary gloom; there to shake off
This weight of life, this tumult of mankind. …

Her own poetry, entirely negligible today except as it indicates tendency, includes Despair (Misc. Works, vol. I, p. 71), which is characteristic:

Oh! lead me to some solitary gloom,
Where no enliv'ning beams, nor chearful echoes come;
There, in a melting, solemn, dying strain,
Let me, all day, upon my lyre complain,
And wind up all its soft, harmonious strings,
To noble, serious, melancholy things.
Here to my fatal sorrows let me give
The short remaining hours I have to live,
Then, with a sullen, deep-fetch'd groan expire,
And to the grave's dark solitude retire.

Two other Retirement poems are in lighter vein, To Chloe, and...

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Criticism: Major Figures

Samuel Johnson (essay date 1781)

SOURCE: Johnson, Samuel. “Gray.” In Lives of the English Poets, Vol. 3, edited by George Birkbeck Hill, 421-45. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1781, Johnson provides a brief overview of Gray's life and claims that there is more to be celebrated in the life that he lived than in the poetry he created, in which he finds very little originality.]

Thomas Gray, the son of Mr. Philip Gray, a scrivener1 of London, was born in Cornhill2, November 26, 17163. His grammatical education he received at Eton under the care of Mr. Antrobus, his mother's brother, then assistant to Dr. George, and...

(The entire section is 10626 words.)

Samuel Johnson (essay date 1781)

SOURCE: Johnson, Samuel. “Parnell.” In Lives of the English Poets, Vol. 2, edited by George Birkbeck Hill, 49-56. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1781, Johnson provides a brief overview of Parnell's life and claims that his poems, while not works that stemmed from a great mind, have a pleasant sense about them which was enjoyable to the writer himself as well as the reader.]

The Life of Dr. Parnell is a task which I should very willingly decline, since it has been lately written by Goldsmith1, a man of such variety of powers and such felicity of performance that he always seemed to do best that which he was...

(The entire section is 2799 words.)

Cecil V. Wicker (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: Wicker, Cecil V. “Young as Romanticist” and “Young's Melancholy and His Relation to the Graveyard School.” In Edward Young and the Fear of Death: A Study of Romantic Melancholy. 11-22; 23-27. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1952.

[In the following essays, Wicker argues that Young strove to be original in his works and that he treated the melancholy of his day in a new fashion that led to Romanticism. This Romanticism can be seen in the Graveyard tradition, of which Young was one of the founders.]


What this humour is, or whence it proceeds, how it is engendered in the body,...

(The entire section is 6865 words.)

Criticism: Major Works

Isabel St. John Bliss (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: Bliss, Isabel St. John. “Young's Night Thoughts in Relation to Contemporary Christian Apologetics.” PMLA, 49 (March 1934): 37-70.

[In the following essay, Bliss maintains that Young's poem is much more than just a piece about death, and should be considered an expression of Christian apologetics.]

An understanding of the purposes and the popularity of Young's Night Thoughts is possible only through a realization of their relation to contemporary currents of thought. For the most part critics have confined their attention to the so-called personal element and the treatment of the theme of death, and have neglected perhaps the most outstanding...

(The entire section is 14765 words.)

Thomas Woodman (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: Woodman, Thomas. “Poems on Several Occasions III: ‘A Hymn to Contentment,’ ‘A Night Piece on Death,’ and ‘The Hermit.’” In Thomas Parnell, 67-85. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1934.

[In the following essay, Woodman discusses Parnell's three most famous pieces and argues that although they have many aspects to them, he wrote them, most of all, with a Christian purpose in mind.]

Pope ends his selection of Parnell's poems with “A Night Piece on Death,” “A Hymn to Contentment,” and “The Hermit.” All three have a Christian seriousness and solemnity of tone, and it was appropriate, in Pope's view, that the volume should rise to this height....

(The entire section is 6491 words.)

Cecil V. Wicker (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: Wicker, Cecil V. “Young's Fear of Death; Evidence from the Night Thoughts.” In Edward Young and the Fear of Death: A Study of Romantic Melancholy, 66-79. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1952.

[In the following essay, Wicker argues that Young's personal fear of death permeates Night Thoughts, and that while his hope of immortality is evident, his uncertainty runs throughout his work.]

Pursue thy theme, and fight the fear of Death.

Night Thoughts, Night IV

Young's most important work, The Complaint; or, Night Thoughts, has been left for separate consideration, since it is here that the dread...

(The entire section is 4535 words.)

W. Hutchings (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Hutchings, W. “Syntax of Death: Instability in Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.Studies in Philology 81, no. 4 (1984): 496-514.

[In the following essay, Hutchings attempts to demonstrate that the ambiguous syntax used by Gray when referring to death creates much uncertainty for the reader.]

The curfew tolls! the knell of parting day!

Joseph Warton's startling emendation of one of the most famous opening lines in English poetry looks like the work of a rather too eager enthusiast.1 He may, however, have simply wanted to tidy up what Gray had left oddly unclear. He has removed the transitive function of...

(The entire section is 7279 words.)

Further Reading


Phelps, William Lyon. Introduction to Selections from the Poetry and Prose of Thomas Gray, pp. xiiv-xxxix. Boston: Ginn & Company, Publishers, 1894.

Provides an overview of Gray's life and how his experiences affected his writings.

Rawson, Claude. Introduction to Collected Poems of Thomas Parnell, pp. 15-42. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

Weaves together Parnell's experiences with summaries of his works.


Brodwin, Stanley. “The ‘Denial of Death’ in William Cullen Bryant and Walt Whitman.” In William Cullen Bryant and His...

(The entire section is 411 words.)