Graveyard poets

Graveyard poets

The "Graveyard Poets" were a number of pre-Romantic English poets of the 18th century characterised by their gloomy meditations on mortality, 'skulls and coffins, epitaphs and worms'[1] in the context of the graveyard. To this was added, by later practitioners, a feeling for the 'sublime' and uncanny, and an interest in ancient English poetic forms and folk poetry. They are often reckoned as precursors of the Gothic genre.

The Graveyard Poets include Thomas Parnell, Thomas Warton, Thomas Percy, Thomas Gray, Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, Christopher Smart, James MacPherson, Robert Blair, William Collins, Thomas Chatterton, Mark Akenside, Joseph Warton, Henry Kirke White and Edward Young. James Thomson is also sometimes included as a graveyard poet.

An illustration for Young's Night Thoughts by William Blake.

The earliest poem attributed to the Graveyard school was Thomas Parnell's A Night-Piece on Death (1721, this and following years link to corresponding "[year] in poetry" articles) in which King Death himself gives an address from his kingdom of bones:

"When men my scythe and darts supply
How great a King of Fears am I!" (61–62)

Characteristic later poems include Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1742) in which a lonely traveller in a graveyard reflects lugubriously on:

The vale funereal, the sad cypress gloom;
The land of apparitions, empty shades! (117–18)

Blair's The Grave (1743) proves to be no more cheerful as it relates with grim relish how:

Wild shrieks have issued from the hollow tombs;
Dead men have come again, and walked about;
And the great bell has tolled, unrung and untouched. (51–53)

However a more contemplative and mellow mood is achieved in the celebrated opening verse of Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751[2]) in which

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me. (1–4)

The Graveyard Poets were notable and influential figures, who created a stir in the public mind, and marked a shift in mood and form in English poetry, in the second half of the 18th century, which eventually led to Romanticism.


  1. ^ Blair: The Grave 23
  2. ^ "Published on 15 February 1751 in a quarto pamphlet, according to Cox, Michael, editor, The Concise Oxford Chronology of English Literature, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-19-860634-6
  • Noyes, Russell (Ed.) (1956). English Romantic Poetry and Prose. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-501007-8

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