Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

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In its thematic development, “The Exequy” follows the overall pattern of an elegy. The poem begins with a statement of mourning and loss (lines 1-80), followed by passages of acceptance and reconciliation in which the speaker comes to terms with his grief (lines 81-114). The concluding section (lines 115-120) looks to the future in the spirit of hope and acceptance, although the hopeful tone in King’s poem is remarkably moderate. Unlike many elegies written about subjects whom the poet scarcely knew or perhaps had never met, King’s poem includes a genuine sense of personal loss and grief. The speaker refers to the youth of his bride, suggesting that death overtook her before she had reached the halfway point of life. In another passage, the speaker refers to himself as older and, therefore, reasonably expects that he would be first to die. While it does not give the specific cause of her death, the poem suggests that she died of a fever. Although the tone remains restrained and dignified, the speaker goes beyond the conventional, formulaic expressions often found in elegies. The resolution to look toward the future is achieved only through the poignant theme stressing that the speaker will join his wife in death.

At a deeper level, the poem develops a meditation on time. The first and more distant form is the time of Judgment Day, when the speaker asserts that his wife will be resurrected entirely. Until then, she sleeps in the earth, which the poem invokes to fully render her back. The vision of Judgment Day is consistent with the literal belief in bodily resurrection, a belief widely held in the seventeenth century. This idea was often accompanied by another somewhat contradictory one: that the soul of the deceased had gone to heaven and would rejoin the body at a later time. King expresses a simpler version, making no reference to a separate existence of the soul. Rather, the speaker derives comfort from the hope of a final and permanent reunion in the distant future.

More vividly expressed is the speaker’s contemplation of his death, when he will join her in the grave. Picturing the inexorable movement of his own allotted time, he designates each passing minute and hour as moving him measurably toward his goal. Even a night’s sleep brings him eight hours closer to his destination, a westward journey toward death. Each pulse beat marks his movement toward the end of life, the final battlefield. The prospect of his own death becomes not a subject for grief but a welcome assurance and a means of reconciling the speaker to his wife.