The Graveyard Poets [ARTICLE]

Poetic Reflections in a Cemetery

Thomas Gray

Thomas Gray

In this article, we will look at the Graveyard Poets and their connection to the Gothic Movement. The Graveyard Poets, known as the founders of the Graveyard School, were a group of poets from the mid to late 18th century. They were neoclassical in style, and it is said that they paved the way for the Gothic and Romanticism movements. As their group name suggests, they enjoyed writing while in cemeteries, and their works portrayed that. Their themes were often concerned with death, gloom, religion, and mortality. Their poems often used funeral or gloomy imagery, though their purpose was never just to be dark. They were often very Christian writers who used the symbolism of night, death, and gloom in spiritual musings of human mortality and our relation to God. It was because of them that the portrayal of negative states and emotions in poetry became more accepted.

It has been debated how many poets were actually considered part of the group, but there are about 15 considered to be “official” members, and about five or so “extra”. Since there are so many, I can’t talk about them all. I will, however, talk about some of my favorites: Robert Blair, Thomas Parnell, and Thomas Grey.

Robert Blair is often considered the founding father of the Graveyard Poets. He was the son of a reverend, one of the King’s chaplains. His family was fairly wealthy, and his hobbies included gardening and the study of English poets. Though he only published three pieces, one was so loved that it was one of the foundations for the Graveyard School. It was on this piece, entitled “The Grave”, that his entire reputation as a poet rested. Since it has 767 lines, it goes through a variety of topics. However, every topic has to do with some aspect of death. Unsurprisingly, it starts out as a reflection of the supposed horrors of death and the grave. He describes things in amazing detail and it sounds like it could be a scene from a horror movie. Part way through however, it takes a surprising turn. He starts speaking about a woman who is mourning at a grave, which then causes him to reflect on the subject of friendship and love. It is one of the few bright spots in the poem. Eventually he goes on to the subject of how all are equal in the eyes of death. It matters not if you were a king or a slave; we all die and rot in the ground. I have to say the most interesting thing though is that at the beginning of the poem, he describes it as his job to “paint the gloomy horrors of the tomb.”

Thomas Parnell

Thomas Parnell

Thomas Parnell was a clergyman and a professor at Trinity College. Considered a genius, he enrolled in that college at the age of 13 and got his Master’s degree at the age of 21. He was known for how refined he was, as well as his politeness and wit. But what few knew about him was that he struggled with bouts of depression due to the death of his wife. He had few published works in his life, but his poem entitled “A Night-Piece on Death” was considered the first ever poem in the Graveyard School. Though it is not as dark as Robert Blair’s poem, it still contains the subject matter of the grave. It starts out as a rather beautiful description of the night and as his gaze roves over the grounds, the cemetery catches his eye. He then begins to reflect on death. He speaks of how men view death as the end of all things and fear it, though he claims it is merely “a path that must be trod”.

Finally we have Thomas Grey, who is perhaps the most well known of the Graveyard Poets. He was very scholarly, and avoided athletics like the plague. He was exited to go to college at first, but found out that it bored him. He was supposed to study law, but instead spent most of his time reading classical and modern (for his time at least) literature and playing Vivaldi and Scarlatti on the harpsichord. He wasn’t serious about writing poetry until the death of a close friend. Due to his severe self criticism and fear of failure, he did not publish many of his poems. However, one of his poems that he did publish became one of the most prominent in the Graveyard School. In fact, it is still one of the most quoted poems in the English language. It is entitled “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. In the beginning, he writes about watching a farmer plod on his way home after the sun begins to set. He comments on the sounds of dusk and how the scene seems to change. His eyes roam over the land and he sees some trees with graves under them. Eventually in the poem, he tells the grand and the splendid not to look down on the simple and the hardworking. It seems that he thinks that the simple life is much superior to the grand, and that “the paths of glory lead but to the grave”. He speaks of how wealth doesn’t matter when one is dead, because all the riches that man has can’t bring him back the breath of life.

As you can see, their poetry about death and darkness was not simply about being morbid and gloomy. They merely used it as a tool to teach and lead people to contemplate. They didn’t take these dark things at face value, but looked deeper, beyond the obvious. They chose to see beauty there instead of just fearing it. And though it was a fascination of theirs, darkness and death didn’t consume their lives like some would think. In fact, Thomas Grey was known just as much for writing comical things as he was for writing gloomy things, perhaps even more so. Because of this, I think they make very excellent role models for Goths. 

Author: Lady Seraph

I was born in 1992, though I often feel as if I should have been born before then. I am just now starting to carve my own niche out of the subculture. I'm not really one specific kind of Goth; I'm the type who would wear a Victorian gown with a deathhawk and a nosechain, or whatever other combination I feel like. I keep what I like and don’t bother with the rest. Though that’s not to say that I don’t have many a day where I feel like adhering to one specific genre. I am a nerd as well. I enjoying RPGing, I had a Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 group at one time, though it’s not together anymore. Until I get a new group, I make due with text RPGs. I was the type of child whom you would never see without a book in hand. I’ve been reading ever since I could remember. I am rather fond of mythology and thriller/horror stories. My love of reading, paired with a very broad and active imagination, has lead to my love of writing. I write mostly poetry and short fiction stories, though occasionally I attempt longer pieces.

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  1. Thanks for the education! Very well written!

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  2. I really enjoyed reading your post because I share something in common with these writers just like you wrote,”As you can see, their poetry about death and darkness was not simply about being morbid and gloomy. They merely used it as a tool to teach and lead people to contemplate. They didn’t take these dark things at face value, but looked deeper, beyond the obvious. They chose to see beauty there instead of just fearing it.” It makes me more aware of how important it is to not be afraid of delving into even the darkest emotions of the human heart, in fact it’s quite necessary to understand it and thus see it’s true beauty. It’s the first step in pursuing justice, (turning what’s wrong in society and making it into something right.) If we don’t look we can’t understand, and if we can’t understand then we can’t achieve the noblest aspirations of our hearts.

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  3. This amazing article, “The Graveyard Poets ” reveals that
    you know precisely what you’re communicating about! I thoroughly agree. With thanks ,Demetrius

    Post a Reply

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