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The Graveyard School of Poetry: A Study of Four Eminent Poets

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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.


The Graveyard School of Poetry: Introduction

The term “Graveyard School of Poetry” is applied to a group of eighteenth century poets who wrote meditative poems, usually set in the background of a graveyard, on the theme of human morality and in moods which ranged from elegiac pensiveness to profound grief and gloom. These poets were the forerunners of romantic melancholy that appeared in the poets of the next generation. Their poems originated in melancholy ensuing from the mortality of life, inevitability of death and vanity of human wishes and ambitions. These poems have a tone of despair, the odour of the charnel house and are steeped in gloom, not for death of any single person (as in elegies) but for human race in general. One may even say, they are not poems on death but on life which is subjected to the graveyard of inevitable doom. Four important poets who belong to this group are Thomas Parnell, Robert Blair, Edward Young and Thomas Gray.

Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)

Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)

Thomas Parnell

The Graveyard School was initiated by Thomas Parnell with his well-known poem “A Night Piece on Death”. With this poem the vogue of Graveyard or Churchyard poems set in. Parnell deeply meditated on life and death in melancholic mood:

“Those graves, with bending osier bound

That nameless have the crumbled ground.”

In the same poem, Parnell cautions man against the inevitable approach of death:

Ha! while I gaze, pale Cynthia fades,

The bursting earth unveils the shades!

All slow and wan, and wrapped with shrouds,

They rise in visionary crowds,

And all with sober accent cry,

"Think, mortal, what it is to die."

The poet further calls man to hear the subdued groans of the dead from their tombs:

“It sends a peal of hollow groans,

Thus speaking from among the bones.”

These lines draw an eerie image of the graveyard at night. Words like “yew”, “Charnel House”, “ravens”, “hollow groans” and “bones” create an uncanny atmosphere in the minds of the readers.

Robert Blair

Robert Blair

Robert Blair

Robert Blair, a Scottish poet, joined the group of the Graveyard poets with his long poem “The Grave”, which is a meditation on death. It is written in blank verse, styled after Elizabethan poetry. The following lines illustrate the eerie tone of the poem quite profoundly:

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Tell us, ye dead I will none of you in pity

To those you left behind disclose the secret?

O! that some courteous ghost would blab it out

What ’tis you are, and we must shortly be.

I’ve heard that souls departed have sometimes

Forewarn’d men of their death. ’Twas kindly done

To knock and give the alarm. But what means

This stinted charity? ’Tis but lame kindness

That does its work by halves. Why might you not

Tell us what ’tis to die?

The very words show an intimate urge to communicate with the world beyond life. However, at the same time, they show the futility of the attempt and emphasize silence and absence as only realities of that unexperienced world.

A musical rendition truly worthwhile...

Edward Young  (1683-1765)

Edward Young (1683-1765)

Edward Young

Edward Young (1683-1765)

With Edward Young we come to a poet of greater originality and force. He is primarily remembered for his “Night Thoughts”. Its central theme is mortality of man. Its unbroken gloom tires one to the extreme degree. The moral is more apparent than real. Young reflects on the death of his wife and of his step daughter and her husband during nine nights, and in each one gloom is expressed with all the artistry of an amorist stroking a shroud. He pours his broodings in the gloomy context of night:

Night, sable goddess! from her ebon throne,
In rayless majesty, now stretches forth
Her leaden sceptre o'er a slumbering world.

Silence, how dead! And darkness, how profound!

Nor eye nor listening ear an object finds;

Creation sleeps.”

In the darkness of the night, man is a helpless creature:

“How poor, how rich, how abject, how august,

How complicate, how wonderful is man!”

Under these circumstances, the only consoling force is religion.

Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

Thomas Gray

By far the most important poet belonging to the Graveyard school was Thomas Gray. His representative poem “An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is believed to be the greatest poem of this class. Its influence was felt immediately, not only in England but all over Europe. Edmund Gosse says, “The Elegy has exercised an influence on all the poetry of Europe, from Denmark to Italy, from France to Russia. With the exception of certain works of Byron and Shakespeare, no English poem has been so widely quoted poem in English.”

The Elegy is set in an uncanny atmosphere at dusk in a country churchyard. W.H.Hudson observes, “There is the churchyard scene, the twilight atmosphere, and the brooding melancholy of the poem, which at once connect it with one side of the romantic movement. The contrast drawn between the country and the town—the peasants’ simple life and the “madding crowd’s ignoble strife” needs to be noted. The tender feelings shown for the “rude forefathers” and “short simple annals of the poor” reach out to include humble aspects of life hitherto ignored by the neoclassicists.

The Elegy exposes the mortality and vanity of human existence:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

There is no use building memorial monuments or inscribing tales of one’s glories on them. None of these can call back the departed soul:

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt'ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

The rich or the proud should not deride the poor commoners because Death, the leveller, makes them all equal in the grave:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The Memorial Epitaph of Thomas Gray: Lines From His Elegy

The Memorial Epitaph of Thomas Gray: Lines From His Elegy

This is the story of life as much as it is the story of death. This is the melancholy, morbid and absolutely true commentary on existence which the poets of the Graveyard School presented.


An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard: A Beautiful Rendition

© 2018 Monami


Linda Sue Grimes from U.S.A. on September 17, 2020:

You’re welcome, Monami. Glad I could help. Best of luck with your literary studies.

Monami (author) from India on September 17, 2020:

Thank you so much Linda. This is such a bad oversight. Will correct it.

Linda Sue Grimes from U.S.A. on February 29, 2020:

Your image of "Robert Blair" is William Blake. Blake's name even appears on the sketch under Blake's likeness Here are some additional copies of that sketch at gettyimages:

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