Graveyard Poets Introduction

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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).