Like most of the technically accomplished poets of his era, Henry King was proficient in a wide range of forms and styles. However, the form that seems to have been most congenial to his poetic temper, and in which he wrote his most memorable pieces, was the elegy. Constituting a significant part of his rather compact volume, elegies punctuate King’s entire poetic career, accounting for his first datable poem, “An Elegy Upon Prince Henryes Death” (1612), and his last, “An Elegy Upon my Best Friend L. K. C.” (Lady Katherine Cholmondeley, 1657). Indeed—though it is unlikely that King himself would have coveted this distinction—the list of notable personages memorialized so eloquently in his funeral poems might well give King claim to the title of elegiac poet laureate of the seventeenth century.
That what King calls the “Elegiack Knell” peals so resonantly in his verse is in part a measure of the occasional and public character much of his poetry assumed. For King, as for many of his contemporaries, private experience and public events were not inimical as poetic subjects, but complementary; in both lay hints of universal significance for the discerning poet to interpret and elucidate. Thus, a poem called forth by a particular “occasion”—the birth of a child or the death of a celebrated war hero—could serve as a vehicle for recording, for solemnizing, the significance of an event for both the poet and the world at large. No “occasion,” though, fulfills this purpose more ably than that of death, for no event is at once so private and so public, and when, in turn, death deprives the world of an individual of special importance, a “Matchlesse” wife, or a “most Incomparable” monarch, for example, the scope of the loss is all the more conspicuous, its implications all the more universal. The “weeping verse” and funeral rites invoked in King’s elegies are in part, then, a literary convention by means of which King affirms and reaffirms the common basis of experience that he as a poet shares with the public about whom and for whom he writes.
Still, to suggest that the elegiac strain in King’s verse is in some sense “conventional” is not to impugn or belittle what it may reveal about the innermost concerns of King’s poetic psyche. In her seminal discussion of “The Laureate Hearse” in Studies in Seventeenth Century Poetic (1950), Ruth Coons Wallerstein persuasively argued that the response to death in the elegiac poems of the seventeenth century crystallized the deepest spiritual and poetic preoccupations of the era, a thesis to which King’s elegies prove no exception. For King, the “occasion” of death subjected the aspirations of life and art to their most intense scrutiny. In metaphoric terms, King conceived of death as a literary text, the “Killing rhetorick” and “Grammer” of which contained lessons about human experience that King seems never to have tired of reading.
Just how tireless this reading was is suggested not only by the sheer frequency with which elegiac themes appear in King’s verse but also by their appearance in poems that are not explicitly funereal pieces and have little ostensibly to do with the issues of death and mourning. A conspicuous example is the poem King wrote in honor of the newly born Prince Charles, titled “By Occasion of the young Prince his happy birth. May 29-1630.” No subject, one would think, has less to do with death than does birth, and, in an ethos in which the divine right of kings was a respected principle, no birth would be a source of as much public rejoicing as would that of a prince and heir apparent. Yet, at the outset of the poem, the reader finds King laboring, not to express his joy but to explain why he has hesitated to write, why at first, in fact, he “held it some Allegiance not to write.” What has tempered King’s celebrative mood is the recognition that everything that makes the arrival of Prince Charles a welcome event entails a sobering reflection about his father, King Charles. In the advent of a child abides the hope of immortality, along, unfortunately, with the acknowledgment of mortality. Hence, even a newly born child is a memento mori, and in that book of harsh lessons by which King metaphorically conceived of death, children form “The Smiling Preface to our Funerall.” The arrival of a prince, connoting as it does the hope of a smooth succession and continuity in the royal line, underscores the inevitability of the death of the monarch; to acclaim the birth of Charles the Prince is, King fears, to anticipate and make seem all the more imminent the passing away of Charles the King.
Such insights bring King to something of a dilemma. As a loyal Englishman, he would like to use his poetic gifts to frame a compliment to the Crown. Yet his poetic vision enables, obliges, him to see the infant prince both for what he is and for what he represents. The apprehension of mortality and the rhetoric of death force King to see and say things inappropriate to the ostensibly complimentary occasion; but to excise his elegiac concerns, King implies, is to render his compliment hollow and poetically false.
King’s solution, both in this poem and in many others, is to reconcile his elegiac presentiments with his religious convictions and to turn the occasion of paying a compliment into an opportunity for teaching a salutary lesson. True, the birth of an heir is a tacit intimation of mortality, but mortality itself is but a milestone on the soul’s journey to immortality, and but the last instance of finitude before all time is transformed into the infinitude of life everlasting. To pretend to ignore death, to be obsessed with prolonging life on earth, is to repudiate a fundamental article of faith: “And wee in vaine were Christians, should wee/ In this world dreame of Perpetuitye.” Rather deftly, King pays the royal father the ultimate compliment of eschewing flattery and appealing, instead, to wisdom and Christian humility to accept a wholesome truth: “Decay is Nature’s Kalendar; nor can/ It hurt the King to think He is a Man.” With these reflections articulated, and with the fullest implications of the Prince’s birth understood, King can with more genuine enthusiasm acclaim the happy event and even look forward to that time when young Charles will “lead Succession’s goulden Teame” and ascend to his father’s throne.
The poem on “the young Prince” exemplifies the pattern of argumentation that King pursues in much of his verse, wherein, with varying degrees of success and conviction, he strives to achieve a synthesis in which elegiac sadness and pessimism over the transience of this world is answered by religious belief in the permanence of the next. Nowhere, perhaps, is this religious elegiac vision more moving and more triumphant than in King’s most frequently anthologized piece, the poem he wrote on the death of his young wife, Anne, “The Exequy.”
What at first seems peculiar about this poem, which deals with so emotionally charged an experience, and which ultimately manages to be so moving, is that it at first appears so distanced, so oddly impersonal. Little is learned about Anne herself, and one wonders at first whether King is merely making use of the death of his wife as a pretext for a philosophical discourse. One has only to read a little way into the poem to discover that it is delivered as a meditation in which Anne is a rather abstracted presence. The title of the poem may promise that it is addressed “To his Matchlesse never to be forgotten Freind” [italics added], but the poem opens with the poet apostrophizing a burial monument, “Thou Shrine of my Dead Saint.” To the extent that Anne herself is addressed at all within the first ten lines of the piece, it is not as a person but as “Deare Losse.” It is this “Losse” that consumes all the poet’s emotional energy, but that energy has been subsumed in study, in a commitment to do nothing but “meditate” on the loss itself. It is the “Deare Losse” that forms “the Book,/ The Library whereon I took.”
Although the poet at first seems to be distanced from Anne, it is precisely this distancing that establishes the emotional tension and intensity within the poem. The poet must turn to the study of his loss because that is all that is left him; all that remains of Anne, after all, is the “Lov’d Clay” lying in the tomb. In the discipline of meditation, then, the poet finds a method of coping with death and a means by which he may explore the psychology of grief and “compute the weary howres/ With Sighes dissolved into Showres.”
Initially, at least, meditation enables the poet not so much to allay his grief as to define its scope. The emotional void left by the death of Anne makes existence as a whole a desolation because it was Anne who gave existence its meaning. Here the influence of Donne on King becomes readily apparent, for in attempting to define the impact of his wife’s loss, King employs the kind of imagery used by Donne to illustrate the experiences of separation and loss in poems such as “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” and “A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day.” The extinction of Anne’s life is like the extinction of the sun, since it was she who brought “Light and Motion” to the poet’s now darkened “Hemispheare.” Yet this is a “straunge Ecclipse,” one “As ne’re was read in Almanake,” because it was not caused by the obstruction of the moon but by the earth itself, which in reclaiming Anne’s “Lov’d Clay” has “interposed” itself between the poet and his sun.
What makes this “Ecclipse” especially “straunge” is not merely its provenance but its duration. Unlike a “normal” solar eclipse, this one is not transitory, but will endure as long as the earth endures. The eclipse of the poet’s world is not an extraordinary phenomenon but a systemic and all too ordinary condition. With the recognition of this fact comes the realization...
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