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Graveyard Poets

Thomas Gray
Robert Blair
William Cowper
Thomas Parnell
Edward Young

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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.

Often set in a graveyard, their poems mused on the vicissitudes of 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 The Grave (1743), Edward Young’s nine-volume The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (1742–45), and Thomas Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1750).

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."





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