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' 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.
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 supplyHow 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) 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.
The Graveyard Poets (1740-1780)
A group of mid- to late- eighteenth century poets who saw in the graveyard an occasion for reflection on human mortality. Neo-classical in style, they paved the way for the Gothic and Romanticism. The finest poem of the school is Thomas Grey's "Elegy on a Country Churchyard".
The writings of the Graveyard Poets frequently touched on themes of death, mortality, religion, and melancholy. Often elegiac in tone (and title) — an elegy is simply a poem in lament of a death — their poems make frequent use of funeral or gloomy imagery, though their purpose was never sensationalist; they were often very Christian writers who used the imagery of night, death, and gloom in spiritual contemplations of human mortality and our relation to the divine.
(1742–45), and Thomas Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1750). (1743), Edward Young’s nine-volume life, the solitude of death and the grave, and the anguish of bereavement. These poets made use of three themes: retirement, "memento mori" (the reminder that the grave awaits) and the vanity of human pretensions. Their air of pensive gloom presaged the melancholy of the romantic movement. The most famous graveyard poems were Robert Blair’s Often set in a graveyard, their poems mused on the vicissitudes of
Quoting from Fred Botting’s work of non-fiction, THE GOTHIC:
"They marked the limits necessary to the constitution of an enlightened world and delineated the limitations of neoclassical perceptions. Darkness, metaphorically, threatened the light of reason with what it did not know. Gloom cast perceptions of formal order and unified design into obscurity; its uncertainty generated both a sense of mystery and passions and emotions alien to reason. Night gave free reign to imagination’s unnatural and marvellous creatures, while ruins testified to a temporality that exceeded rational understanding and human finitude. These were the thoughts conjured up by Graveyard Poets."