The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.”

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...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 475 words.)