Graveyard Poetry

Dr Eric Parisot, Lecturer in English, Flinders University.

Graveyard poetry is, first and foremost, a devotional mode of poetry. Popular in the early to mid-eighteenth century—that is, in the decades immediately preceding Horace Walpole’s seminal Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764)—it is a mournful brand of poetics designed to facilitate Christian meditation on dying, death and the afterlife by way of the affective imagination.

Although the most prominent examples—Thomas Parnell’s ‘Night-Piece on Death’ (1721), Robert Blair’s The Grave (1743), Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1742-45), and Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751)—vary quite considerably in their respective emphases, the poetic mode’s imperfect label superficially draws specific attention to its defining imaginative locale, the graveyard, and all of its gloomy, nocturnal trappings: the abundant graves and tombs; the dead, whether inanimate or spectral; screeching owls or squawking rooks; the local church, a steadfast spur to faith; the cool glow of a silver moon; the seemingly sentient yews and elms; the flickering flame of a taper that seems to enliven the shadows; and, crucially, a solitary poetic speaker or narrator, highly attuned to the sights and sounds of the dreadful scene. These are the kinds of Gothic trappings that would be familiar to the avid reader of Gothic fiction, or any fan of horror film.

But the relation of graveyard poetry to the Gothic is a lot more complex than this, precisely because of its pious objectives. As an elaborate memento mori, a graveyard poem might encourage the reader to pause and contemplate the brevity and vanity of life, the physical and spiritual fate of those departed (for better or worse), and perhaps, at the most melancholic end of the spectrum, serve as a reminder of the futility of human endeavour in this post-lapsarian world. Fear and melancholy are strategically cultivated as a prompt to faith, as a reminder to prepare the soul for death, where, for the righteous, the ecstasy of the afterlife awaits. Such beatific visions—of soaring, melodious birds bathed in holy light—are often invoked as the rewarding consolation for the devout reader at the end of the poem, to counter the foreboding gloom of the earthly scene.

Take, for example, Parnell’s ‘Night-Piece,’ often regarded as the original graveyard poem. Parnell’s poetic narrator conducts his tour of the graveyard by ‘the blue trembling taper’s light’ (1), while the poem invites imaginative participation by prescribing befitting solemnity—‘think, as softly-sad you tread / Above the venerable dead’ (25–6). All in all, there is little to fear up to this point. But in the fading moonlight, and with the narrator’s exclamation of surprise—‘Ha!’ (47)—comes the supernatural machinery; the ‘visionary crouds’ of the dead, ‘All slow, and wan, and wrap’d with shrouds’ (49–50), are accompanied by a cacophony of tolling bells, croaking ravens, and hollow groans from the charnel-house, before the voice of Death himself commands the reader’s attention:

When men my scythe and darts supply,
How great a King of Fears am I!
They view me like the last of things:
They make, and then they dread, my stings.
Fools! If you less provok’d your fears,
No more my spectre-form appears.
Death’s but a path that must be trod,
If a man would ever pass to God;
A port of calms, a state of ease,
From the rough rage of swelling seas.  (61–70)

The spectral imaginings of the narrator, designed to pique the reader’s dread, are swiftly undercut by Death’s own consoling sense of reason. Fear is elicited only briefly by Parnell before it is attenuated, firstly, by a voice of reason, and secondly, by the promise of heavenly rapture, when our souls ‘tow’r away’ to ‘mingle with the blaze of day’ (89–90).

What happens, though, when the consolation of rapture is withdrawn? Nothing but fear, anxiety and melancholy remains—the reader is left in a liminal state. These emotional states, dwelling within them, are central to graveyard poetry’s affective power, and to the Gothic’s enduring power and appeal. The best example of this is Blair’s The Grave, a poem that invests so heavily in the ‘supernumerary horror’ (19) of the scene that the concluding vision of salvation shines dimly in comparison. Blair assaults the senses much more vigorously than his predecessors: ‘low-browed misty Vaults’ are ‘Furr'd round with mouldy Damps, and ropy Slime’ (17–18) to invite touch; ‘See yonder hallow’d fane!’ (28), our poetic guide exclaims, commanding our visionary sight; ‘Doors creak, and windows clap’ (34), while ‘night’s foul bird / … screams loud’ (34–35) to arrest the imaginary ear, as do the groans of the dead; and we are even reminded of the putrefying ‘Carcase / That's fall'n into disgrace, and in the nostril / Smells horrible’ (169–71). Blair’s poem is vivid and sensory, paving the way to the more confronting and chaotic horrors of late-eighteenth-century Gothic fiction such as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) and German Schauerromantik. But this is not to say that Blair abandoned religious intent for aesthetic frisson: the relative absenceof consolation, both within this poem and, as it argues, within earthly life, creates a powerful yet paradoxical yearning that cannot be fulfilled by human means. This lacuna is where faith may enter, and where salvation begins.

As a label, ‘graveyard poetry’ encourages us to view this mode as an aesthetic precursor to the Gothic tradition. While there is some merit in this, it overlooks the pivotal role of religion, and the various ways graveyard poetry exploited the aesthetics of the night and of death for theological objectives via the psychology of fear and melancholy. Only with this in mind in mind we can fully grasp graveyard poetry’s enduring contribution to the Gothic, from Walpole, to Radcliffe and Lewis, and beyond.

Dr Eric Parisot specialises in British eighteenth-century and Romantic literature, especially the Gothic and the connections between literature and death. He is the author of Graveyard Poetry: Religion, Aesthetics and the Mid-Eightenth-Century Poetic Condition (Ashgate, 2013), and is also an alumnus of the University of Melbourne.