There’s something about goths, graveyards, and poetry that just seem to go together. Well, part of that is because, long before there were any goths, a number of poets frequented graveyards, viewing them as the ideal setting for melancholy contemplation. This trend was popularized in the eighteenth century by a group of pre-Romantic English writers who became known as the Graveyard Poets. The tradition was continued by the Romantics, who have had a significant influence on popular gothic aesthetic and sentiment, and it has since been revisited by many writers into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Below are five of my favorite poems that were written or take place in a graveyard:
- “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray (1751)
Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breastThe little tyrant of his fields withstood;Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.
Thomas Gray’s elegy was the most famous poem to come out of the early Graveyard School of poetry. The poem hits on a number of topics, beginning with a pensive description of the scenic countryside and a romanticized view of the rural poor. It narrows in on the local churchyard as an appropriate setting for these meditations, due to its symbolic value and moral lessons. The churchyard represents death as the great equalizer, and the narrator muses on the futility of riches, fame, and glory since all are equal under the ground. The poem shifts to a consideration of the unrealized potential of the poor, who could have been great artists or thinkers had they had the opportunity for such pursuits. With this new lens provided by the contemplation of death, the narrator realizes how much one’s life is controlled by the arbitrary whim of fortune. The poem ends with a rather dismal epitaph for the poet, who finds rest after a life of misery and futility. Now that’s morbid.
I mentioned in a previous post that Thomas Gray and Horace Walpole (the inventor of the Gothic novel) were close friends. Walpole contributed to this poem’s popularity by circulating it amongst his literary friends. You can find the full text of the poem here.
- “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant (1817)
The venerable woods—rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,—
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man.
William Cullen Bryant, an American Romantic poet was greatly inspired by the works of the Graveyard Poets. Early in his poetic career, he composed the poem that would solidify his reputation as a poet: “Thanatopsis,” whose title means “view of death” in Greek. Bryant’s poem isn’t about any graveyard in particular, but rather views the whole earth as one giant graveyard for all of mankind. Like Gray, Bryant begins by reflecting on nature, particularly on how nature brings him comfort during his contemplations of mortality. The poem seeks to alleviate the fear of dying alone by reminding the reader that all the generations before you have died, and all the generations after you will die. Ultimately, everything now living will die and be returned to the earth—all equal, all together. Isn’t that a happy thought? Check out the poem here.
- “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1854)
The trees are white with dust, that o’er their sleepWave their broad curtains in the south-wind’s breath,While underneath these leafy tents they keepThe long, mysterious Exodus of Death
So we’ve already contemplated nature and mortality in our cemetery strolls, how about some history and social commentary? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet best known for writing “Paul Revere’s Ride,” was moved to write a poem after visiting the Touro Synagogue Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island. Touro Cemetery was one of the earliest Jewish burial grounds established in the colonies, by Jews who were attracted to Rhode Island’s unique position of religious tolerance during that era. By Longfellow’s time, the Jewish population of Rhode Island had greatly declined and the cemetery was essentially abandoned. Thus the tone of the poem is one of nostalgia and sadness.
Longfellow’s poem gives a virtual tour of the cemetery, using religious imagery to describe the graves and noting the diversity of this largely Sephardic community as suggested by the mix of Spanish and biblical names on the tombstones. He remarks upon the persecution and oppression of the Jewish population and mourns (rather prematurely) the “death” of a once-great culture. Click here to read the full poem.
- “In a Disused Graveyard” by Robert Frost (1923)
The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never anymore the dead.
Robert Frost is one of my favorite poets, and though this poem is one of his less well-known, it encapsulates much of what I love about his writing. Like Longfellow, Frost contemplates an abandoned cemetery. But instead of waxing nostalgic and morose, Frost chuckles to himself about how the tombstones must feel at being abandoned and jokes about immortality. The graveyard is treated as a sentient being that wonders at the lack of new bodies to fill it, and Frost imagines telling it that this is because people have ceased to die. Humor is one of the best ways to combat the anxiety brought on by contemplating one’s mortality. I highly recommend you take the time to read this rather short poem.
- “The Mountain Cemetery” by Edgar Bowers (1997)
With their harsh leaves old rhododendrons fill
The crevices in grave plots’ broken stones.
The bees renew the blossoms they destroy,
While in the burning air the pines rise still,
Commemorating long forgotten biers.
Their roots replace the semblance of these bones.
The tradition of graveyard poetry is still strong today. “The Mountain Cemetery” is an example of a more recent poem written on the subject by the twentieth-century American poet, Edgar Bowers. The poem is written in blank verse—that is, non-rhyming iambic pentameter (though the meter is rather loose), a style popularized by such great writers as Shakespeare and Milton. Like the graveyard poets before him Bowers blends the imagery of nature and death, this time quite literally as the roots replace bones and tombstones are worn down into the earth. The poem meditates on the inevitability of death and the unity it brings all living things as they cycle through their lives to return to the earth. You can read the full poem here.
What are your favorite poems to read in cemeteries? Have any other poetic meditations on death to recommend? Feel free to chime in down in the comments!