Graveyard poets

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"Graveyard School" redirects here. For the novellas by Tom B. Stone, see Graveyard School (novella series).

The "Graveyard Poets", also termed “Churchyard Poets”[1] or "the Boneyard Boys”[2] 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'[3] elicited by the presence of the graveyard. Moving beyond the elegy lamenting a single death, their purpose was rarely sensationalist. As the century progressed, "graveyard" poetry increasingly expressed a feeling for the 'sublime' and uncanny, and an antiquarian interest in ancient English poetic forms and folk poetry. The "graveyard poets" are often reckoned as precursors of the Gothic literary genre.


Most of Graveyard School poets were often Christian clergymen. Since they were Christian writers their writings often focused on contemplating human mortality and man’s relation to the divine. These poets were considered to be pre-Romanticists. Graveyard poetry was still popular into the early 19th century. Graveyard poetry was instrumental in the development of the Gothic novel. It contributed to the dark and mysterious mood and story lines that make up a Gothic novel. Graveyard School writers focused their writings on the lives of ordinary and unidentified characters. Graveyard poets were also forerunners for the Romantic literary movement, due to the reflection on emotional states. This emotional reflection is seen in Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” or Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy.” Major works in this literary style are Thomas Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard (1750), James Thomson's The Seasons (1726 - 1730) and Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1742 - 1745). The characteristics and style of Graveyard poetry is not unique to them, and the same themes and tone are found in ballads and odes.

The Graveyard Poets[edit]

Edward Young


Many critics of Graveyard poetry had very little positive feedback for the poets and their work. Critic Amy Louise Reed called Graveyard poetry a disease.[4] While other critics called many poems unoriginal, and said that the poets were better than their poetry. [5] [6] Although the majority of criticism about Graveyard poetry is negative, other critics thought differently, especially about poet Edward Young. Critic Isabell St. John Bliss also celebrates Edward Young’s ability to write his poetry in the style of the Graveyard School and at the same time include Christian themes,[7] and Cecil V. Wicker called Young a forerunner in the Romantic movement and called his work original.[8]

Poem Samples[edit]

An illustration for Young's Night Thoughts by William Blake.

The earliest poem attributed to the Graveyard school was Thomas Parnell's A Night-Piece on Death (1721) in which King Death himself gives an address from his kingdom of bones:

"When men my scythe and darts supply
How 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[9]) 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.


  1. ^ "Graveyard Poets". Vade Mecum: A GRE for Literature Study Tool. Duke. Retrieved 8 December 2012. 
  2. ^ Voller, Jack. "The Graveyard School". The Literary Gothic. Retrieved 12/07/2012.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  3. ^ Blair: The Grave 23
  4. ^ Reed, Amy Louise (1924). "The Revolt Against Melancholy". The Background of Gray's Elegy: 80–139. 
  5. ^ Johnson, Samuel (1905). "Gray". In Lives of the English Poets 3: 421–25. 
  6. ^ Johnson, Samuel (1905). "Parnell". In Lives of the English Poets 2: 49–56. 
  7. ^ St. John Bliss, Isabel (March 1934). "Young's Night Thoughts in Relation to Contemporary Christian Apologetics". PMLA: 49. 
  8. ^ Wicker, Cecil V. (1952). "Young as a Romanticist". Edward Young and the Fear of Death: A Study of Romantic Melancholy: 11–22; 23–27. 
  9. ^ "Published on 15 February 1751 in a quarto pamphlet, according to Cox, Michael, editor, The Concise Oxford Chronology of English Literature, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-19-860634-6
  • Noyes, Russell (Ed.) (1956). English Romantic Poetry and Prose. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-501007-8