Poetry of the Graveyard

Where am I in the Gothic research?

I’m in the midst of a deep dive in English elegiac poetry of the early 18th century. Long before these symbols and allusions were distilled into a Gothic spirit, English poetry was haunted with ruins and graveyards, melancholy and ghosts.

Depending on which history or critic you are reading this kind of poetry is described as melancholy or pensive. It is often elegiac. And, contemporaneously, much of it is grouped under the umbrella of graveyard poetry, or the graveyard school. Some of it may have had direct influence on the Gothic literature but all of it contributed to a tone, or sensibility, that was embraced and heightened by the Gothic authors.

My Fancy palls, and takes Distast[e] at Pleasure;
My Soul grows out of Tune, it loaths the World,
Sickens at all the Noise and Folly of it;
And I could sit me down in some dull Shade,
Where lonely Contemplation keeps her Cave,
And dwells with hoary Hermits; there forget my self,
There fix my stupid Eyes upon the Earth,
And muse a way an Age in deepest Melancholy.

The tragedy of the Lady Jane Gray by Nicholas Rowe
a play in verse
published in 1715

One thing that stands out in this research is how transgressive poetry could be during this era as long as it ended with some sort of exultation of faith. You could write all sorts of horrid scenes as long as you ended with a warning that such moral transgressions would be punished, or that embracing the Christian faith would free one from the horrors described. The Gothic lit of the 1790s (and later) simply did away with the moralizing frame (for the most part) and piled up the frightful imagery. Long before Elmore Leonard the Gothic authors embraced his advice to writers to “leave out the parts that readers skip.”

Here is an an example of early 18th-century melancholy English poetry. Lady Chudleigh describes a melancholy life but reveals in the final sentence that everything will ok because the devout will awaken in heaven after death.

On the Vanities of this Life: A Pindarick Ode
by Lady Mary Chudleigh
published 1703


What makes fond Man the trifle Life desire,
And with such Ardor court his Pain?
‘Tis Madness, worse than Madness, to admire
What brings Ten thousand Miseries in its Train:
To each soft moment, Hours of Care succeed,
And for the Pleasures of a Day,
With Years of Grief we pay;
So much our lasting Sorrows, our fleeting Joys exceed.
In vain, in vain, we Happiness pursue,
That mighty Blessing is not here;
That, like the false misguiding Fire,
Is farthest off, when we believe it near:
Yet still we follow till we tire,
And in the fatal Chase Expire:
Each gaudy nothing which we view,
We fancy is the wish’d for Prize,
Its painted Glories captivate our Eyes;
Blinded by Pride, we hug our own Mistake,
And foolishly adore that Idol which we make.


Some hope to find it on the Coasts of Fame,
And hazard all to gain a glorious Name;
Proud of Deformity and Scars,
They seek for Honour in the bloodiest Wars;
On Dangers, unconcern’d, they run,
And Death it self disdain to shun:
This, the Rich with Wonder see,
And fancy they are happier far
Than those deluded Heroes are:
But this, alas! is their Mistake;
They only dream that they are blest,
For when they from their pleasing Slumbers wake,
They’ll find their Minds with Swarms of Cares opprest,
So crouded, that no part is free
To entertain Felicity:
The Pain to get, and Fear to lose,
Like Harpies, all their Joys devour:
Who such a wretched Life wou’d chuse?
Or think those happy who must Fortune trust?
That fickle Goddess is but seldom just.
Exterior things can ne’er be truly good,
Because within her Pow’r;
This the wise Ancients understood,
And only wish’d for what wou’d Life sustain;
Esteeming all beyond superfluous and vain.


Some think the Great are only blest,
Those God-like Men who shine above the rest:
In whom united Glories meet,
And all the lower World pay Homage at their Feet:
On their exalted Heights they sit in State,
And their Commands bind like the Laws of Fate:
Their Regal Scepters, and their glitt’ring Crowns,
Imprint an awful Fear in ev’ry Breast:
Death shoots his killing Arrows thro’ their Frowns;
Their Smiles are welcom, as the Beams of Light
Were to the infant World, when first it rose from Night.
Thus, in the Firmament of Pow’r above,
Each in his radiant Sphere does move,
Remote from common View;
Th’ admiring Croud with Wonder gaze,
The distant Glories their weak Eyes amaze:
But cou’d they search into the Truth of Things,
Cou’d they but look into the Thoughts of Kings;
If all their hidden Cares they knew,
Their Jealousies, their Fears, their Pain,
And all the Troubles of their Reign,
They then wou’d pity those they now admire;
And with their humble State content, wou’d nothing more desire.


If any thing like Happiness is here,
If any thing deserves our Care,
‘Tis only by the Good possest;
By those who Virtue’s Laws obey,
And cheerfully proceed in her unerring Way;
Whose Souls are cleans’d from all the Dregs of Sin,
From all the base Alloys of their inferior Part,
And fit to harbour that Celestial Guest,
Who ne’r will be confin’d
But to a holy Breast.
The pure and spotless Mind,
Has all within
That the most boundless Wish can crave;
The most aspiring Temper hope to have:
Nor needs the Helps of Art,
Nor vain Supplies of Sense,
Assur’d of all in only Innocence.


Malice and Envy, Discontent, and Pride,
Those fatal Inmates of the Vicious Mind,
Which into dang’rous Paths th’ unthinking Guide,
Ne’er to the pious Breast admittance find.
As th’ upper Region is Serene and clear,
No Winds, no Clouds are there,
So with perpetual Calms the virtuous Soul is blest,
Those Antepasts of everlasting Rest:
Like some firm Rock amidst the raging Waves
She stands, and their united Force outbraves;
Contends, till from her Earthly Shackles free,
She takes her flight
Into immense Eternity,
And in those Realms of unexhausted Light,
Forgets the Pressures of her former State.
O’er-joy’d to find her self beyond the reach of Fate.


O happy Place! where ev’ry thing will please,
Where neither Sickness, Fear, nor Strife,
Nor any of the painful Cares of Life,
Will interrupt her Ease:
Where ev’ry Object charms the Sight,
And yields fresh Wonder and Delight,
Where nothing’s heard but Songs of Joy,
Full of Extasie Divine,
Seraphick Hymns! which Love inspire,
And fill the Breast with sacred Fire:
Love refin’d from drossy Heat,
Rais’d to a Flame sublime and great,
In ev’ry Heav’nly Face do’s shine,
And each Celestial Tongue employ:
What e’er we can of Friendship know,
What e’er we Passion call below,
Does but a weak Resemblance bear,
To that blest Union which is ever there,
Where Love, like Life, do’s animate the whole,
As if it were but one blest individual Soul.


Such as a lasting Happiness would have,
Must seek it in the peaceful Grave,
Where free from Wrongs the Dead remain.
Life is a long continu’d Pain,
A lingring slow Disease.
Which Remedies a while may ease,
But cannot work a perfect Cure:
Musick with its inchanting Lays,
May for a while our Spirits raise,
Honour and Wealth may charm the Sense,
And by their pow’rful Influence
May gently lull our Cares asleep;
But when we think our selves secure,
And fondly hope we shall no future Ills endure,
Our Griefs awake again,
And with redoubl’d Rage augment our Pain:
In vain we stand on our Defence,
In vain a constant Watch we keep,
In vain each Path we guard;
Unseen into our Souls they creep,
And when they once are there, ’tis very hard
With all our Strength to force them thence;
Like bold Intruders on the whole they seize,
A Part will not th’ insatiate Victors please.


In vain, alas! in vain,
We Reason’s Aid implore,
That will but add a quicker Sense of Pain,
But not our former Joys restore:
Those few who by strict Rules their Lives have led,
Who Reason’s Laws attentively have read;
Who to its Dictates glad Submission pay,
And by their Passions never led astray,
Go resolutely on in its severest Way,
Could never solid Satisfaction find:
The most that Reason can, is to persuade the Mind,
Its Troubles decently to bear,
And not permit a Murmur, or a Tear,
To tell th’ inquiring World that any such are there:
But while we strive our Suff’rings to disown,
And blush to have our Frailties known;
While from the publick View our Griefs we hide,
And keep them Pris’ners in our Breast,
We seem to be, but are not truly blest;
What like Contentment looks, is but th’ Effect of Pride:
From it we no advantage win,
But are the same we were before,
The smarting Pains corrode us still within;
Confinement do’s but make them rage the more:
Upon the vital Stock they prey,
And by insensible degrees they wast our Life away.


In vain from Books we hope to gain Relief,
Knowledge does but increase our Grief:
The more we read, the more we find
Of th’ unexhausted Store still left behind:
To dig the wealthy Mine we try,
No Pain, no Labour spare;
But the lov’d Treasure too profound does lie,
And mocks our utmost Industry:
Like some inchanted Isle it does appear;
The pleas’d Spectator thinks it near;
But when with wide spread Sails he makes to shore,
His Hopes are lost, the Phantom’s seen no more:
Asham’d, and tir’d, we of Success despair,
Our fruitless Studies we repent,
And blush to see, that after all our Care,
After whole Years on tedious Volumes spent,
We only darkly understand
That which we thought we fully knew;
Thro’ Labyrinths we go without a Clue,
Till in the dang’rous Maze our selves we lose,
And neither know which Path t’avoid, or which to chuse.
From Thought to Thought, our restless Minds are tost,
Like Ship-wreck’d Mariners we seek the Land,
And in a Sea of Doubts are almost lost.
The Phœnix Truth wrapt up in Mists does lie,
Not to be clearly seen before we die;
Not till our Souls free from confining Clay,
Open their Eyes in everlasting Day.

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