The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

“The Exequy” is an elegy of 120 lines of iambic tetrameter couplets, a verse form popular in a wide variety of early seventeenth century English lyrics. The second line fittingly designates the poem a “complaint” (or lament), and it appropriately sustains a tone of grief over a personal loss throughout. Henry King wrote the elegy on the death of his wife Anne, who died seven years after they were married, having borne him five children. Although first-person speakers are never identical with the authors, the speaker of “The Exequy” reflects, with reasonable accuracy, King’s personal grief over the loss of his wife. He originally gave his elegy the subtitle “To His Matchlesse Never To Be Forgotten Freind.”

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The text is divided into eleven verse paragraphs of varying lengths, ranging from two to eighteen lines. Essentially, the speaker expresses his grief, develops a meditation on time, and looks to the future. In the opening paragraph, the poet establishes an elegiac tone through an address to the burial site, the “Shrine,” offering poetry instead of flowers as a fitting adornment for his “Dear Loss.” In the second paragraph, the address turns to the dead wife as the object of the speaker’s meditation and emotion. She has become his book or library, and his only business, which he peruses though blinded by tears. Paragraph 3 introduces images and metaphors related to the cosmos. Grief reminds him that she died before reaching the normal midpoint of life, and the effect on the speaker has been that of an eclipse, as earth has interposed between himself and his beloved, metaphorically depicted as his sun. The poem’s metaphors in this section become increasingly complex, as if to suggest that meditation allays the speaker’s grief.

In the fourth paragraph, the speaker expresses an especially poignant, yet normal, reaction to bereavement, an effort to strike a bargain with fate. He could willingly give her up for a period, a year or even ten years, if he knew she would return. However, the subsequent paragraph brings the realization that he cannot hope to see her again until Judgment Day, when all the resurrected are assembled. Whatever consolation the speaker can wring from this event derives from the hope of a reunion in the remote future.

In a long paragraph continuing the section on grief, the poet invokes the earth to keep what he can no longer possess but to restore its charge fully on Judgment Day. The section concludes with a single, two-line paragraph, as if the grave were being closed: “So close the ground, and ‘bout her shade/ Black curtains draw, my Bride is laid.” In the remaining paragraphs, the speaker turns to his own future and looks forward to death, when his body will join hers in the earth. The images and figures of speech emphasize both the transience of life and the inevitable march of time. The speaker views himself as moving inexorably toward death, as a ship on a long voyage or an army unit ready to join a battle already under way. By viewing his own existence as tending toward her and rejoining her in death, he finds some consolation for his loss and a kind of subdued acceptance of the future. The poem concludes on a note of personal reconciliation and hope for reunion: “I am content to live/ Divided, with but half a heart,/ Till we shall meet and never part.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

The elegy’s most prominent figure of speech is apostrophe, an address to an inanimate object or abstraction as if it were alive or to a person absent or dead as if present or alive. In its application, apostrophe is thus related to personification. It establishes a dignified, somewhat elevated tone and is often hortative and ecstatic. However, King’s apostrophes are restrained, decorous, and appropriately subdued in tone. Initially, the apostrophe is to the grave, metaphorically the “Shrine of my dead Saint.” Imperceptibly, however, the dead Saint becomes the object of the speaker’s address as he develops the theme of mourning. Shifting the subject of the apostrophe usually marks a transition in the tone or movement of the poem. The change from his wife to earth signals the speaker’s intent to close the section on grieving. He admonishes earth to hold her body but to yield it in its entirety on Doomsday. The poem’s final apostrophe, beginning “Sleep on my Love in thy cold bed/ Never to be disquieted,” once more treats the dead person as if alive; it establishes a meditative tone, allowing the speaker to make a transition to his own journey toward death. The apostrophes do more than establish a serious tone; they also focus attention on the dead wife and her resting place. They have the effect of increasing the immediacy of the speaker’s expressed emotions of loss and grief.

“The Exequy” is often included in anthologies of Metaphysical poetry, the poetic tradition founded by English poet John Donne. The primary reasons for its place in the Donne tradition are its meditative content, its reasoned analysis, and its striking and complex metaphors and similes. The dead wife becomes a “book,” then, hyperbolically, the speaker’s “library,” which occupies all of his attention. Her dying has been like the setting sun that will not rise again. First, she is his day, then a falling star, and finally her death becomes a never-ending eclipse as earth is placed between her and the speaker. While some figures are brief and striking, others are more ingenious, intricate, and complex. The remote comparison of her burial to an eclipse, a never-ending one at that, represents a bold metaphysical conceit.

In the section looking forward to his own death, the speaker employs more conventional figures. He metaphorically equates his own journey toward death with that of a ship sailing inexorably toward its destination. In a further comparison, he portrays himself as a military unit joining a battle that has already consumed his love. The passage introduces a memorable simile: “My pulse like a soft Drum/ Beats my approch, tells Thee I come.” The figures that indicate his own passage of time are designed to convey a sense of steady, constant movement, whereas those applied to her suggest more rapid and overwhelming movement.

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Themes