Often, these poems used dark imagery and included graveyards, skulls, and more. Sometimes, they took the form of elegies or laments for a deceased person. Other times, they spoke more broadly about the impact of death on the world.
Some scholars have suggested that Milton’s poetry, especially his minor poems, may have influenced some of the Graveyard Poets. Others argue against this position, suggesting that Graveyard Poetry came from a wider variety of influences, such as a broader religious revival.
Explore Graveyard Poetry and Graveyard Poets
Definition of Graveyard Poetry
Graveyard poets were often known to include sublime and grotesque imagery within their work. They might detail experiences that are new and otherworldly, inspiring some readers and turning others off. These poems were usually quite dark and are seen as precursors to Gothic literature and the broader Romantic movement that began in the 1790s with the publication of William Wordsworth’s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads.
Despite their all-encompassing title, graveyard poetry and graveyard poets were not a clearly defined group or genre. The term is broadly and loosely applied to writers who created work on similar themes. This means that some scholars dispute who belongs to the group and who doesn’t. No matter how the group is defined, it’s undeniable that there was an interest in death-related imagery, like ghosts and graveyards, during the 18th century.
Examples of Poetry from Graveyard Poets
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray
Gray wrote this elegy in the year 1742 and published it in 1751. It was inspired by the death of his friend Richard West and is often considered to be Gray’s best poem. In it, the poem discusses the ultimate truth about life and death in free-flowing poetic lines. The speaker stands alone in a graveyard, deep in thought. He considers all the bodies buried there and thinks about the inevitability of death. He includes his own epitaph in the poem, suggesting that his life is filled with sadness and grief. Here are a few lines from the beginning of the poem:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
This poem is a well-known and very successful example of a Graveyard poem. It includes much of the most commonly used imagery and brings together specific and broader ideas of life and death.
Read more of Thomas Gray’s poetry.
A Night-Piece on Death by Thomas Parnell
This famed poem is often cited as the first “Graveyard poem.” It was published posthumously in Poems on Several Occasions. It’s fairly simple in its construction, using iambic tetrameter, and direct in its subject. The poem addresses death, suggesting that it’s nothing to be afraid of. Throughout, the poet uses night imagery in addition to visions of tombs and sepulchers. Here are a few lines from the last section of the poem:
Nor can the parted body know,
Nor wants the soul, these forms of woe.
As men who long in prison dwell,
With lamps that glimmer round the cell,
Whene’er their suffering years are run,
Spring forth to greet the glitt’ring sun:
Such joy, though far transcending sense,
Have pious souls at parting hence.
The speaker returns to a common theme in these poems, that life is short and that all human beings are eventually going to have to face death. Whatever constructions human beings make, they are going to eventually be all that’s left.
The Grave by Robert Blair
‘The Grave’ is another popular Graveyard poem. It’s written in blank verse and is commonly considered to be his best-known work. The poem is fairly long and includes much of what readers should expect from Graveyard poetry. The lines being together images of fleeting life and everlasting death. There are references to God, the afterlife, and physical graves. There are also several examples of juxtaposed imagery, relating the “harvest” to the bounties of life. Here are a few lines from the beginning of the poem:
While some affect the sun, and some the shade,
Some flee the city, some the hermitage;
Their aims as various, as the roads they take
In journeying through life;—the task be mine,
To paint the gloomy horrors of the tomb;
The appointed place of rendezvous, where all
These travellers meet.—Thy succours I implore,
Eternal king! whose potent arm sustains
The keys of Hell and Death.—The Grave, dread thing!
Night Thoughts by Edward Young
‘Night Thoughts’ by Edward Young is one final quite successful example of a graveyard poem. It is also written in blank verse and separated out into nine sections or nine nights of contemplation. The speaker spends them considering death and pondering the loss of people he loved. This includes his wife and friends. Here are a few lines from the beginning of the poem:
By Nature’s law, what may be, may be now;
There’s no prerogative in human hours:
In human hearts what bolder thought can rise,
Than man’s presumption on tomorrow’s dawn?
Where is tomorrow? In another world.
For numbers this is certain; the reverse
Is sure to none; and yet on this perhaps,
This peradventure, infamous for lies,
As on a rock of adamant we build
Our mountain hopes; spin out eternal schemes,
As we the fatal sisters would outspin,
And, big with life’s futurities, expire.
The poet spends the majority of the poem discussing how quickly life goes by and how permanent death is. Before one even knows what’s happening, opportunities slip away.
Graveyard poetry is important because it discusses something that all readers can relate to—death. Everyone is eventually going to have to face their own mortality, and the Graveyard Poets did not shy away from this fact. They addressed it head-on.
The most common theme is death, followed by the fleeting nature of life, the afterlife, and the purpose of life. Readers might also encounter specific recollections of relationships and moments from the poet’s life in their work.
This term is often applied instead of “Graveyard Poetry.” It refers to the same group of 18th-century writers whose work dealt with themes of death and included dark, graveyard-related imagery.
Some of the best-known Graveyard Poets are Thomas Gray, James Beattie, Thomas Warton, Thomas Percy, William Cowper, and Christopher Smart.
Related Literary Terms
- Aestheticism: a literary and artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that focused on the importance of beauty.
- Augustan Age: a period during the first half of the 18th century in England. Poets during this period created verses inspired by authors like Virgil and Ovid.
- Bloomsbury Group: also known as the Bloomsbury Set, was a group of English writers, artists, philosophers, critics, and friends.
- Romanticism: a movement that originated in Europe at the end of the 18th century and emphasized aesthetic experience and imagination.