Poems to Read in a Graveyard, Part 2

Last year, I wrote up a list of five death- and graveyard-themed poems to ponder as you enjoy a solitary stroll through someone’s final resting place. Now that graveyard picnic season has come once again, I figured it was time to add to this list. When researching for my previous post, I discovered that the tradition of graveyard poetry was far more robust than I had previously realized, and I kept finding more poems that I wanted to share. As before, my collection contains works by a few of the pre-Romantic “Graveyard Poets,” as well as a couple of poems by later Romantic poets. Enjoy!

  1. “A Night-piece on Death” by Thomas Parnell (1721)

There pass, with melancholy state,
By all the solemn heaps of fate,
And think, as softly-sad you tread
Above the venerable dead,
“Time was, like thee they life possessed,
And time shall be, that thou shalt rest.”

Thomas Parnell was a poet and clergyman at the turn of the eighteenth century who is perhaps best known for his close association with Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, two other prominent authors of his day. Parnell was also one of the four poets who made up the core of the Graveyard Poet movement, and his poem “A Night-piece on Death” is generally considered the first example of the Graveyard School of poetry. The poem begins with a speaker who decides that strolling through a graveyard at night is a quicker path to knowledge than studying the old texts of scholars and sages. He contemplates his own mortality as he peruses the socially stratified sections of the graveyard, from the “nameless” that “heave the crumpled ground,” to the “flat smooth stones that bear a name,” and finally the “marble tombs that rise on high.” Then, the shades of the dead appear to deliver a message of momento mori: “Think, mortal, what it is to die.” The last thirty or so lines consist of a speech by personified Death, himself, who proclaims that death is not to be feared or mourned, but rather is the necessary path that leads to heaven. This view, bolstered by religious sentiment, was popular in Europe from the Middle Ages through the Victorian era. You can read the poem for yourself here.

  1. Night-Thoughts by Edward Young (1742)

How populous, how vital, is the grave!
This is creation’s melancholy vault,
The vale funereal, the sad cypress gloom;
The land of apparitions, empty shades!

Edward Young was another member of the early Graveyard Poets. His most famous work is Night-Thoughts, officially titled The Complaint; or Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality, a long poem published in nine parts, reflecting nine different nights. Over the course of these nine nights, the poet muses on death, including the loss of his wife and other friends. While the poem is lengthy and a bit disjointed, it has some truly beautiful passages and its early success helped to popularize the growing trend of melancholy musings on death. You can find the entire nine-part poem on Project Gutenberg.

  1. The Grave by Robert Blair (1743)

In journeying through life; the task be mine
To paint the gloomy horrors of the tomb;
Th’ appointed place of rendezvous, where all
These trav’llers meet.

“The Skeleton Reanimated,” one of William Blake’s illustrations for The Grave

Robert Blair was a Scottish poet and the third and final of the official Graveyard Poets that I’ll be talking about in this post. He only published three poems in his lifetime, the last of which was his lengthy, blank verse poem The Grave. Like the other two poems mentioned so far, The Grave combines the topics of night and death through musings upon a graveyard after dark. As the speaker wanders through the graves, he moralizes on the different types of people that lie beneath the dirt—”Here the tongue-warrior lies! … Here the great masters of the healing arts …  Here the lank-sided miser, worst of felons …”—and whether they are prepared for what awaits them in the afterlife. Blair reminds us that in the end, death comes for everyone: “’Tis but a night, a long and moonless night; / We make the grave our bed, and then are gone!”

Half a century after the poem was originally published, Romantic poet and artist William Blake was commissioned to paint some of its scenes for an illustrated edition published in 1808, which helped to boost the poem’s popularity. You can read the full poem here.

  1. “A Summer Evening Churchyard” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1816)

The dead are sleeping in their sepulchres:
And, mouldering as they sleep, a thrilling sound,
Half sense half thought, among the darkness stirs,
Breathed from their wormy beds all living things around

Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the better known Romantic poets, although he’s been largely overshadowed by his wife, Mary Shelley—author of the Gothic/sci-fi classic, Frankenstein. “A Summer Evening Churchyard” is far from Percy Shelley’s most popular poem, but I quite enjoy it and found it especially suited to our theme. The poem begins with beautiful imagery depicting the encroaching dusk through the personified characters of Evening, Twilight, and Silence. Shelley goes on to meditate on the peace and quiet of a graveyard and finds that here, the idea of death can be “solemnized and softened,” and thus contemplated without fear. This poem exemplified the Romantic view of graveyards as places of beauty and comfort, as opposed to the more common view today that they are spooky or unsettling. You can find the poem online here.

  1. “England’s Dead” by Felicia Hemans (1826)

Go, stranger! track the deep—
Free, free the white sail spread!
Wave may not foam, nor wild wind sweep,
Where rest not England’s dead.

Felicia Hemans was an English poet during the Late Romantic era. As a young teen, her poetry caught the interested of above-mentioned Percy Bysshe Shelley, and she was held in high regard by other contemporary poets, such as William Wordsworth. Many of her poems address the experiences of women and some tackler darker topics like female suicide. “England’s Dead” is about the vast spread of the English empire and the many different lands that house England’s dead. From Egypt to the Arctic, it seems like the whole world is England’s graveyard. The tone is celebratory and even comforting, for such a morbid topic. Felicia Hemans shows that your graveyard contemplations need not be gloomy, nor focus solely on religious concepts of heaven and afterlife. Instead, you can take any topic, like imperialistic nationalism, and muse on it through the lens of death. Check out her poem here.

What do you think of my selection? What other poems would you add? Let me know in the comments!

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