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Perception and the Senses in Eighteenth-century England

“The Philosophy of Tears”: Sense(s) and sensibility in some graveyard poems

« La philosophie des larmes » : Des sens et de la sensibilité dans la poésie des cimetières
John Baker


Cet article explore les rapports entre les sens, la signification et la sensibilité à travers la lecture de quatre poèmes qu’on réunit habituellement sous la rubrique « poésie des cimetières », en privilégiant ce marqueur matériel de l’émotion que sont les larmes et la présence (ou l’absence) des larmes. Il s’agit du poème « A Night-Piece on Death » (1721) de Thomas Parnell, de The Grave (1743) de Robert Blair, des Night Thoughts (1742-1745) d’Edward Young et de Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) de Thomas Gray. Comment le poète trouve-t-il les mots pour exprimer l’expérience de la perte et du deuil ? Comment œuvre-t-il pour faire face à l’anticipation de sa propre fin ? De l’avis de certains commentateurs, dans l’Elegy de Gray, le genre du poème sépulcral atteint son apogée, sans dire son dernier mot, dans le sens où il s’agit d’un patchwork remarquable de citations, d’allusions, d’échos et de références provenant de poèmes qui abordent le même sujet. Tel un centon, le poème est en partie composé de bribes d’autres poèmes. Gray serait tellement imprégné de ses lectures de poèmes récents ou d’un passé plus lointain que son génie s’y exprime dans sa propension à raffiner, à extraire, à transformer, à rassembler, tout en produisant et en créant quelque chose qui est à la fois parfaitement conventionnel, traditionnel et reconnaissable et, de façon singulière, neuf, curieusement incomplet, ouvert et troublant.

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  • 1 “Epistle to Robert Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer”, dedication preceding Poems on Several Occasio (...)

Absent or dead, still let a Friend be dear,
(A Sigh the Absent claims, the Dead a Tear).
Alexander Pope1

1Book 5 of the Aeneid comes to a close with an account of the demise of Palinurus. Piloting at night, not heeding Aeneas’s counsel that he rest, the helmsman of Aeneas’s fleet, on its way to the shores of Latium, falls overboard after succumbing to sleep: he is portrayed as falling victim to the wiles of Somnus. Aeneas, who will thus only see his companion again in the underworld (Book 6), evokes his mortal remains which, so he imagines, will be washed up on some foreign strand, unknown, never to be buried; destined, as it were, to a second “death”, that of forgetting, oblivion:

cum pater amisso fluitantem errare magistro
sensit et ipse ratem nocturnis rexit in undis,
multa gemens casuque animum concussus amici:
‘o nimium caelo et pelago confise sereno,
nudus in ignota, Palinure, iacebis harena.’

  • 2 Virgil, Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid, 1-6, trans. H. R. Fairclough, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University (...)

Sic fatur lacrimans classique immittit habenas,
et tandem Euboicis Cumarum adlabitur oris.2

Here the Chieftain discovered that his ship was wallowing adrift, for her steersman was lost. Therefore he steered her himself through the midnight waves with many a sigh, for he was deeply shocked by the disaster to his friend: “Ah, Palinurus, you were too trustful of the calm sky and sea. So you will lie, a shroudless form, on an unknown strand”.

  • 3 Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. W. F. Jackson Knight, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1970, p. 146-147.

So spoke Aeneas, weeping. Then he gave his fleet the rein and at last came smoothly to Euboean Cumae’s coast.3

  • 4 Virgil, Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid, 1-6, op. cit., 6. 362-383.

2The opening lines of Book 6 are an enjambment, narratively speaking, as there is no pause in the storytelling; the reader is served Aeneas’s immediate emotional reaction on his learning the unhappy news. Book 6 of Virgil’s epic is, of course, a central, strategically placed book, that recounts the descent of Aeneas to the underworld, guided by the Cumaean Sibyl, but which opens, then, with a compact reference to Aeneas’s tears as he laments the death of his friend. “Sic fatur lacrimans [...]”. “So spoke Aeneas, weeping”. As well as deploring the death of his friend, Aeneas is troubled by the impossibility of burying Palinurus and carrying out the funeral rites that are required. If there is an end in death, without the rites of passage this end remains unfinished business, the rites, maimed rites. The situation is again evoked in the exchange in Book 6 between Palinurus and the Cumaean Sibyl. Palinurus finds himself stranded on the bank of the Styx unable to get to the other side precisely because his mortal remains have not been buried. Palinurus then learns that a tomb will be erected and his name will be remembered as a cape will be named after him, Capo Palinuro.4 This substitute form of remembrance appears to relieve Palinurus’s anguish.

  • 5 Michel Ragon writes that funeral practices are far from being universal and uniform across time and (...)

3From time immemorial people have striven to perpetuate the memory of the departed by carrying out rituals, and leaving a tangible, visible, material trace which will resist the passage and the ravages of time and forgetting. Though not true of all cultures, it is the case with the vast majority of them.5 In western cultures this trace usually takes the form of a monument or a gravestone on which words are inscribed, an epitaph, perhaps some lines of verse, a few sentences which recall and celebrate the dead or, more simply, the name and the dates of the deceased; something that bears witness. This constitutes a form of presence, a mark, which serves to materialize and to represent the absence of the dead as well as the presence of death itself (“Et in Arcadia ego”).

  • 6 This is how Paul Van Tieghem describes “la poésie nocturne et sépulcrale” in his 1921 study, La Poé (...)

4The place of death is the graveyard; a place of eternal rest for the dead, of remembrance and contemplation for the living. The grave is a physical space, a resting place, a “house”, tangible, perceptible and substantial proof of the passage and passing away of elders, ancestors, friends and relatives who have disappeared, a space that is at once sacred and cultural, “a Place of Graves” as the Irish poet and essayist Thomas Parnell puts it nicely in “A Night-Piece on Death” (1721). The graveyard is a literary commonplace too. From close by or from afar, the poems that are associated with this “mode sentimentale et littéraire”6 that is the very broad and time-honoured tradition of elegy and funerary poetry, and which includes graveyard poetry, resound and echo across time and respond to each other. Thus the graveyard is at once topography and a topos.

  • 7 In the preface to the second edition of L’Homme et la mort (Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1976), Edgar (...)

5We are called on as readers of these poems (it is the poets’ explicit and voiced intention) to at once ward off the fear of, and face up to, our own death; to come to terms with the idea not only that someone has disappeared, but that this endgame will also be our own, to take on board the lessons that death can teach us, and thus to give it a meaning.7 This poetry holds up a mirror which reflects the image of our own impending destiny. On the face of it, such is the principal burden of these poems. Taken as a whole, but to varying degrees, this graveyard poetry is religious and didactic. It informs us, to reform us. In order to do this, it seeks to impress the reader and to convince him or her, by its rational arguments, to mend our ways and set our sights on God and the afterlife, but also, and perhaps, above all, by its emotional ones.

  • 8 David Morris, “A Poetry of Absence”, in John Sitter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Ce (...)

6David B. Morris has suggested that an appropriate image to illustrate “a poetics of absence” in the eighteenth century would be the ruin.8 He goes on to say that ruins illustrate an “implicit doubleness combining solidity with evanescence”. These “embodiments of absence”, as Morris calls them, evoke “the mingled surprise, melancholy, awe, sadness, and occasional elation that the poetry of the period finds implicit in the experience of loss”. Graveyards, and their literary expression in so-called “graveyard poetry”, more often than not combined with a nocturnal setting, are a second eighteenth-century example and, in many ways, represent the epitome of loss. Graveyards, however, despite their clearly communal design and vocation, and the fact that bereavement is a shared as well as an individual experience, express loss on a personal rather than a civilizational or imperial scale. Graveyard poetry, however, has a universal message. I would like in this essay to revisit some of the signal poems that go to make up this loose poetic grouping, poems by Thomas Parnell (1679-1718), Robert Blair (1699-1746), Edward Young (1683-1765) and Thomas Gray (1716-1771), to see how these poets react to the challenge and experience of loss; how they frame poetically the real or imagined loss of others as well as the anticipation of their own demise; to see also how they use their senses, how they transcribe and express their sensations in their poems to express both thought and emotion. I will employ as a central, informing image, the sign par excellence of emotion and sensibility, the tear.

  • 9 Éric Parisot, Graveyard Poetry: Religion, Aesthetics and the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Poetic Conditio (...)
  • 10 Ibid., p. 5.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 9. For discussions of Gray’s poetic “instability”, see W. B. Hutchings, “Syntax of Death: (...)

7In a recent study devoted to the question of the status and the critical reception of these poems, Eric Parisot argues that “from an historical perspective” graveyard poetry can be viewed “as a distinct mode of poetic experimentation rather than as a marginal contributor”.9 He believes the graveyard mode can be placed at the very centre of poetic developments in the eighteenth century while it has been seen, at least by some critics, as something of a sideshow, an awkward category, on occasions excessive, sentimental, mawkish, overwrought and even insincere. But he also acknowledges its usefulness as “a term of convenience”.10 In particular, following previous commentators, he underlines the pivotal role played by Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) in heralding “the transition from religiously conservative graveyard poetry, with an emphasis upon faith and providence as Christian consolation, to a revised form of graveyard consolation that works independently of orthodox models of providence and eschatology”.11

8The poems usually brought together under the rubric “graveyard poetry”, though there was certainly no school as such, do indeed share common elements, the Christian message of the salvation of souls with its promise of a new and eternal existence beyond the grave being a prime one. The poets did not know each other and thus did not communicate with each other or seek to establish a programme, and the poems themselves are strikingly various in form, tone and length. The “graveyard school” has suffered from an image problem, from problems of chronological and thematic coherence too, but has doggedly remained a convenient label. Indulgent melancholy and grim and grisly details are often evoked as a defining feature of the poems even though Parnell and Young and even Blair, for example, go out of their way to debunk the false fears engendered by the graveyard and death itself and take pains to promote the Christian promise of eternal life that their poems seek to convey. There is certainly nothing remotely or indulgently macabre in the measured, carefully wrought and controlled, but ultimately puzzling Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, but then Gray’s poem stands apart, comes after the other three and above all signals a radical change of stance. It should be remembered that Parnell, Blair and Young were all churchmen. What the four poems do all address is the question of death, how to face up to it and, following on from that, what Blaise Pascal in his Pensées and Edward Young in his Night Thoughts were to identify as one of the fundamental tenets of Christian faith, the immortality of the soul, the belief in a life after death. Pascal frames the question as follows:

  • 12 Blaise Pascal, Article III, “De la nécessité du pari”, *194, Pensées, ed. Brunschvicg, Paris, Éditi (...)

L’immortalité de l’âme est une chose qui nous importe si fort, qui nous touche si profondément, qu’il faut avoir perdu tout sentiment pour être dans l’indifférence de savoir ce qui en est. Toutes nos actions et nos pensées doivent prendre des routes si différentes, selon qu’il y aura des biens éternels à espérer ou non, qu’il est impossible de faire une démarche avec sens et jugement, qu’en la réglant par la vue de ce point, qui doit être notre dernier objet.12

  • 13 All quotations from Young’s Night Thoughts follow Stephen Cornford’s edition, Edward Young: “Night (...)
  • 14 Edward Young, A Poem on the Last Day, Oxford, 1713.
  • 15 Edward Young, Cynthio. A Poem on the Death of John Brydges, Marquis of Carnarvon, London, 1727.
  • 16 É. Parisot, op. cit., p. 105.

9These poems are at once anticipatory, exploratory, anxious, and in themselves rehearsals for what Young calls “the final Scene” (2.17).13 When Young writes in “Night the Third”, “The Thought of Death, shall, like a God, inspire” (3.309), it is not mere rhetorical gesticulation. He is not simply turning up the volume. Young was haunted by the thought and fear of death throughout his life from A Poem on the Last Day,14 through his poem Cynthio,15 to his Night Thoughts. But again, as Parisot reminds us, the nuances, strategies and aims of the poems differ in decisive ways. Young’s Night Thoughts, for example, “are the direct consequence of his decision to ultimately distance himself from the deceased. Gray, however, pursues what Young chooses not to. Not only does he willingly seek an intimate knowledge of death in his Elegy, he seeks it by imagining the very experience”.16 This crucial point that distinguishes the author of the Elegy from the other poets, has been made by other critics and marks out Gray’s poem from the religiously conventional concerns of the first three.

10Michèle Plaisant in her study La Sensibilité dans la poésie anglaise au début du XVIIIe siècle (1974) emphasises the fact that sentimentalism takes root and finds a propitious environment in a society that is undergoing gradual but profound change. This evolution arguably has a foundation in the empirical philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704) and in the “moral sense” of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713):

  • 17 Michèle S. Plaisant, La Sensibilité dans la poésie anglaise au début du XVIIIe siècle : évolution e (...)

Les sensualistes tentent de formuler des lois psychologiques en s’appuyant sur l’expérience et les réactions du sujet. Cette attitude entraîne des conséquences importantes sur le plan littéraire, car, en accordant à la sensation ou à l’impression une place de choix, Locke suggère que l’art d’écrire ne consiste pas à appliquer des règles strictes, et procède plutôt, de l’activité intérieure de l’âme.17

11Several of the key elements of sentimentalism are succinctly assembled here: the legitimation and valorisation of emotion as a mode of expression, indeed, as a means of knowledge, as a way of apprehending and comprehending the world. This questions the status and the domination of reason, while at the same time it adumbrates a levelling movement, both social and political, a levelling in the sense that everyone has emotions, and sensibility should (or could) be a form of interior and intimate nobility, peculiar to each individual, whatever their social position, accessible to all and shared by all. Thus the emotions and sensibility, like reason, would be endowed with a universal legitimacy and vocation. This is not to see John Locke as an advocate of sentimentalism or a prophet of sensibility. It does, however, suggest that, in focusing on the role played by the senses in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke’s writing was to influence the arts and literature in the eighteenth century and to clear the way for and “legitimise”, as it were, the development of new modes of expressing and, indeed, thinking about feeling such as are manifest in the writings of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), and later in Adam Smith’s A Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

  • 18 Robert N. Essick and Morton D. Paley, “Introduction: The Poet in the Graveyard” in Robert Blair, “T (...)

12Commentators insist, and rightly so, on the importance attached in graveyard poetry to the material, physical, sensualist (accessible to the senses) character of graveyard poetry: “The true Graveyard poem never loses its sense of physical reality”,18 write Robert Essick and Morton Paley. The religious, moral and metaphysical reflections are triggered and supported by the observations and the (supposed) presence of the poet himself. In providing an inventory of elements that go to make up the graveyard poem, the authors nonetheless acknowledge that there remains a degree of arbitrariness in the checklist:

  • 19 Ibid., p. 4.

One thing a Graveyard poem must have is a highly conscious narrator. The consciousness of the poet, or of the persona of the poet, is an important part of the Graveyard poem: the way in which the scene strikes his sensibility is at least as important as the scene itself. This conventionalised narrator, preoccupied with the thought of Death, wanders through the darkness of either an outdoor night scene or an indoor church vault in order to contemplate real, concretely described graves or tombs. The themes of momento mori, ubi sunt, contemptus mundi, and Death the Leveller occur.19

13To a certain extent this poetry of the graveyard is to eighteenth-century English literature what vanitas images are to seventeenth-century painting, notably Netherlandish and Flemish. The latter are themselves related to still lifes or allegories of the five senses which, like graveyard poetry, seek to represent and recall the transient nature of human existence. There again, it is an exercise of style, a set piece which, necessarily, by the nature of human and natural existence, remains universal in its reach and its significance, and cannot go out of fashion. The sister arts each have their own specific iconography. Graveyard poetry has its topoï, its panoply of references (the owl, the yew or the cypress tree, the ruins, night, the solitary poet lost in meditation, the tombs themselves), its literary precursors, so many elements and sources that the poet can introduce, take out, draw from and remodel to his taste. Among these commonplaces can be counted the expression of the emotions in the material and natural form of tears. What do these tears have to say for themselves, what do they have to tell and “teach” us? What can be said of them?

  • 20 Edward Young, Love of Fame, The Universal Passion. In Seven Characteristical Satires, London, 1728.
  • 21 Edward Young, Two Epistles for Mr. Pope, concerning the Authors of the Age, London, 1730.
  • 22 Almost no tears at all. Swift’s closest friends and literary accomplices were, as it pleased Swift (...)

14Edward Young (Young explicitly presents himself as the persona and narrator of his poem), according to the chronology suggested in the Night Thoughts (1742-1745), experienced three bereavements in a short space of time, a three-month period. Night Thoughts proposes a quite different journey to that of Virgil, an eighteenth-century nocturnal epic of sorts, moral and Christian, by turns didactic and ecstatic, in the course of which, among many other reflections, meditations and digressions, Young sketches out a “philosophy of tears”. The quote in the title of this essay comes from a passage in “Night the Fifth” (5.516-571), and serves as a backdrop to what I propose to do here, to assemble and compare instances of tear shedding, sentiment, but also sensational and sense-informed, and thus emotional, reactions to death in the graveyard poems. What Young proposes to his interlocutor, Lorenzo, in these lines is a descent into the heart of man to find the source of emotion. The passage serves to remind the reader that Young, author of Love of Fame,20 as well as Two Epistles to Mr. Pope,21 was an accomplished and acknowledged satirist. In Night Thoughts this satirical strain surfaces on several occasions. His anatomy of tears is one example. It recalls Swift’s post-mortem eavesdropping on various people’s reactions (or indifference) to his own demise in Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D. (1739), but its purpose is graver and lacks Swift’s amused and playful tone. Few tears were shed there apparently, but Young does adopt a similar listing and anatomizing of reactions.22 He sets out in emphatic mode with references to those two great markers of emotion, the sigh and the tear. Young traces the different motivations behind the shedding of tears at a funeral. Emotion may be put on for show, or be involuntary, sincere or strategic:

Lorenzo! hast thou ever weigh’d a Sigh?
Or studied the Philosophy of Tears?
(A Science, yet, unlectur’d in our Schools.)
Hast thou descended deep into the Breast,
And seen their Source? If not, descend with me,
And trace these briny Riv’lets to their Springs.
Our Funeral Tears, from different Causes, rise.
As if, from separate Cisterns in the Soul,
Of various Kinds, they flow. From tender Hearts,
By soft Contagion call’d, some burst at once,
And stream obsequious to the leading Eye.
Some, ask more Time, by curious Art distill’d.
Some Hearts in secret hard, unapt to melt,
Struck by the Magic of the Public eye,
Like Moses’ smitten Rock, gush out amain.
Some weep to share the Fame of the Deceas’d,
So high in Merit, and to them so Dear.
They dwell on Praises, which they think they share,
And thus, without a Blush, commend Themselves.
Some mourn in Proof that something they could love.
They weep not to relieve their Greif, but show.
Some weep in perfect Justice to the Dead,
As Conscious all their Love is in Arrear.
Some mischievously weep, not unappriz’d,
Tears, sometimes, aid the Conquest of an Eye. (5. 516-540)

15Young’s conclusion, after juxtaposing the complex reasons that lie behind the show of emotion, ranging from the innocent and sincere to the calculating and hypocritical, when he gives the moral of the story, is that beyond their emotional reaction, sincere or otherwise, people ultimately remain impervious to the lesson that death teaches. Here is the preacher-poet drawing out conclusions from his examples:

They weep impetuous, as the Summer-Storm,
And full as short! The cruel Grief soon tam’d,
They make a Pastime of the stingless Tale;
Far as the deep-resounding Knell, they spread
The dreadful News, and hardly feel it more.
No Grain of Wisdom pays them for their Woe.
Half round the Globe, the Tears pumpt up by Death
Are spent in watering Vanities of Life;
In making Folly flourish still more fair. (5. 562-571)

16The success of Young’s poem, greeted, at least as concerns the first Nights, as a sincere, personal expression of bereavement, was due to the fact that it both caught and exemplified a change of mood that was abroad at the time, that it made readers aware of changes in sensibility that they were themselves experiencing, and was itself influential is making the literary expression of emotion, sentiment, and personal grief more fashionable. Emotion, as Virgil reminds us, was not invented in the middle of the eighteenth century, nor were tears, but there was no doubt a discernable and lasting shift in the perception, valorisation and expression of sentiment, sensibility and emotion as markers of a certain refinement of, and the capacity for, feeling. From the mid-eighteenth century on, the period now known as the “Age of Sensibility”, feeling and sensibility become acknowledged as modes of “knowledge” in their own right, or at least knowledge was no longer considered to be exclusively the preserve of reason. The showing (even exhibiting) and sharing of sentiment thus become more desirable and more acceptable. Young, in one of his terse syntactic and semantic short cuts, will go as far as to proclaim “Passion is Reason” (4.640). A simple copula is capable of a great deal.

  • 23 Alexander Pope oversaw the posthumous publication of Parnell’s poems in a volume, Poems on Several (...)
  • 24 Thomas Parnell, “A Night-Piece on Death” in Collected Poems of Thomas Parnell, eds. Claude Rawson a (...)

17Thomas Parnell’s poem, “A Night-Piece on Death”,23 which first appeared in Alexander Pope’s posthumous collection of Parnell’s poetry in a volume dated 1722, though published in December 1721, is the first, chronologically, of the four graveyard poems here under discussion. It was written, it is believed, as a response to the death of his wife, Anne, in 1711, an event which, according to Swift, caused his friend Parnell great grief. In several respects it is the odd-man-out in the group. The poem is remarkable in part because personal grief is absent from the poem itself. There are no tears, there is no explicit reference to the persona’s feelings of bereavement or indeed to anyone else’s. Rather, what we have is a short but striking poem, detached and lucid, balanced, that presents the scene of a graveyard and affirms that in death the body will escape its earthly prison and find the “Blaze of Day”, the very last words of the poem.24 It includes several essential or at least typical elements of the graveyard tradition. The scene is set at night and in a graveyard. The sky is clear; the stars are apparent not only in the night sky but below as the calm and majesty of the firmament, a visual spectacle, is reflected in the lake. Symmetry is thus established between the heavens and earth, perhaps encouraging the mind to settle its thoughts on higher things and other worlds. Parnell includes the beautiful line “The slumb’ring Breeze forgets to breathe” (13) that reinforces a sense of peace and stillness. What is interesting here is the “night of the senses”, not their eclipse or powerlessness, but how the senses, and indeed which senses, operate at night. Parnell’s persona portrays a specific landscape before his eyes or in his mind’s eye at the very moment of writing, and directs and enhances the gaze of the reader.

The Grounds which on the right aspire,
In dimness from the View retire:
The Left presents a Place of Graves,
Whose Wall the silent Water laves.
That Steeple guides thy doubtful sight
Among the livid gleams of Night.
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 possest,
And Time shall be, that thou shalt Rest.

18The use of pronouns that will be of central concern and has come to be seen as a crux in Gray’s Elegy is significant here too, but in an unproblematic way. The “I” that introduces the poem and guides the reader either morphs into a “thy”, “you” and “thee”, as though the poet were addressing himself, or the reader suddenly finds himself addressed and involved in the poem. Here, in the moral presented in italics, a sort of mental, incorporeal epitaph or admonishment (all four poems and graveyard poems in general have this didactic, at times recriminatory, voice and purpose), the persona / reader“thee”is made to lie, as it were, alongside the “they” (the dead). The two pronouns are neatly and discreetly placed side by side in the centre of the line, almost blending one with the other as if to signal their (i.e. “our”) shared destiny.

19In this poem Parnell’s persona says he will leave the Schoolmen and Sages behind and descend to seek Wisdom “below” in the graveyard, as if the physical, the visual, the tangible were surer tokens of true knowledge than mere speculative and disembodied book knowledge. There follows, then, a description of the landscape, with scanty and yet precise directions, details and features, the right, the left, the steeple, a wall, before a first pause to give the moral of the story. Then, comparing the three social classes of dead, with an unmistakeable anticipation of Gray’s Elegy, the humble and poor, “A middle Race” and the Rich and Great, the poet recalls the commonplace point, that even if the memorials erected bear witness to a common destiny and despite the elaborate monuments of the rich, in death the rich too are deprived of the very senses which could enable them to appreciate their own renown post-mortem.

20Parnell’s persona is, then, conjuring up a scene he would have us believe is present before his eyes, using his senses and reflection to portray the “senselessness” of death, the deceased’s absence to and from the world, here in their unconsciousness of the fame procured by, and still present in, the elaborate sculpture of their funeral monuments. It is in its way a complex yet obvious message, reminding us that the monuments are in a very real sense erected for the living.

The Marble Tombs that rise on high,
Whose Dead in vaulted Arches lye,
Whose Pillars swell with sculptur’d Stones,
Arms, Angels, Epitaphs and Bones,

These (all the poor Remains of State)
Adorn the Rich, or praise the Great;
Who while on Earth in Fame they live,
Are sensless of the Fame they give. (39-46)

21Parnell, surprisingly, introduces Death himself as the Grim Reaper, in an active role debunking man’s self-inflicted and imaginary fears of death:

When Men my Scythe and Darts supply,
How great a King of Fears am I!
They view me like the last of Things:
They make, and then they dread, my Stings. (61-64)

22Death goes on to reassure man that death is on the contrary a passage to a better life using the stock images of life as a journey, as a perilous sea voyage:

Death’s but a Path that must be trod,
If Man wou’d ever pass to God:
A Port of Calms, a State of Ease
From the rough Rage of swelling Seas. (67-70)

23Death suggests that man himself creates death and the dread of death through his own imagination, and mocks the paraphernalia of funeral ceremonies, the horse-drawn hearses, the palls and plumes, and their sombre spectacle. Neither the soul nor the body of the departed want such rituals. On the contrary life is a release from the prison of this world and, for the souls of the departed, a joy “far transcending Sense” (83). Death, then, is present as an imaginary and ironic figure. The senses too, sight and sound, are evoked and play a central role, but despite the references to the emotions of fear and joy, the only sadness is illusory, and Parnell’s poem conveys a universal and Christian message of reassurance that death is a release and a source of joy. Parnell’s graveyard has no place for tears.

  • 25 “As we know, tears are the proper emblem of the literatures of sensibility and sentiment”, Jerome M (...)

24Tears, according to Jerome McGann, are the emblem of sensibility,25 its privileged figure. They are visible and bear witness to strong emotion, can be joyous, but are more commonly the sign of sadness and distress. They overflow, cannot be contained and have a character that is, in the strict sense of the word, excessive. Fluid and transparent, alive in a sense and mobile, they are supposed to be the token of sincerity and of the purity and spontaneity of emotion felt by the person who sheds them. They are also gendered, more frequently feminine than masculine. Like the sigh, they escape us; they are spontaneous which is perhaps part of their “charm”.

25In the following three examples of the graveyard genre, extracts from poems published in the middle of the eighteenth century, tears, sensibility and sepulchral poetry converge. The Grave is a poem of 767 lines in blank verse, published in 1743. Robert Blair (1699-1746), its Scottish author, was ordained and became a Minister in Haddington, Athelstaneford, where he was to remain all his life. His is unquestionably a didactic, Christian poem with an evangelical mission and message: death, so feared, is only a step on the way to the Day of Judgement and eternal life. Blair’s remit and task is clear at the outset, and he shares with his fellow graveyard poets the inevitable image of life as a journey, fraught with danger and troubles, a vale of tears, with the grave as the final destination, though itself only a passage to the afterlife:

WHILST some affect the Sun, and some the Shade,
Some flee the City, some the Hermitage;
Their Aims as various, as the Roads they take
In Journeying thro’ Life; the Task be mine
To paint the gloomy Horrors of the Tomb;
Th’ appointed Place of Rendezvous, where all
These Travellers meet. (1-7)

26Blair clearly enjoys the gothic and macabre possibilities that a meditation on death procures. In the graveyard, like Parnell, he imagines spectres rising from the graves, but where Parnell briefly evokes them and their message that we soon will be like them, Blair lingers and revels in the scene:

Rous’d from their Slumbers
In grim Array the grizly Spectres rise,
Grin horrible, and obstinately sullen
Pass and repass, hush’d as the Foot of Night.
Again! the Screech-Owl shrieks: Ungracious Sound!
I’ll hear no more, it makes one’s Blood run chill. (39-44)

  • 26 See James A. Means’ Introduction in Robert Blair.The Grave. A Poem”, The Augustan Reprint Society (...)

27The senses are present throughout Blair’s poem. It has a deliberately rough and ready tone, crude at times, but is above all frank, entertaining, unexpected in its forthrightness and was, towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, much read and very popular.26 The descriptions it contains are vigorous. You also have the expected adages on the vanity of all things and the inevitability of death, mixed with recriminations and injunctions which indicate to the reader the path to follow, the path to Salvation.

  • 27 To a Mouse, On turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November, 1785”, in Robert Burns, Poem (...)

28As is the case with other poets associated with the graveyard tradition, the first person is employed, which renders the poem itself, its message and its descriptions, more immediate, more plausible and direct. Blair reviews in a conventional way all the lures and desires man busies himself with in his worldly existence: ambition, lineage, beauty, renown, wealth, and so on. He thrusts forward his arguments and his truths with no great regard for ceremony or niceties. Like death itself, his subject matter, he teaches us “blunt Truth” (236). Thus, in lines that one can suppose Burns remembered when writing his poem “To a Mouse” (1785)The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley”27 – Blair underlines the vanity of human designs and pretensions:

  • 28 J. A. Means, op. cit., p. v. “All told, Burns quotes passages from The Grave in seven different let (...)

Absurd! to think to over-reach the Grave,
And from the Wreck of Names to rescue ours!
The best concerted Schemes Men lay for Fame
Die fast away: Only themselves die faster. (183-186)28

29The short passage which follows depicts the tears of a widow, overcome by memories of the past, who seeks consolation on the tomb of her husband. Blair employs a sentimental and extravagant rhetoric to present the scene, emphasising the contrast between the passiveness of the widow, the difficulty she has simply to move about, as if she were transfixed by pain and the power of the emotion that affects her. The tears here (“Bursts of Sorrow”) are abundant and violent; the material and physical expression of emotion is forceful and overwhelming. The tableau contains psychological elements that, on the descriptive and literary plane, go well beyond the simple dogmatic Christian message.

The new-made Widow too, I’ve sometimes spy’d,
Sad Sight! slow moving o’er the prostrate Dead:
Listless, she crawls along in doleful Black,
Whilst Bursts of Sorrow gush from either Eye,
Fast-falling down her now untasted Cheek.
Prone on the lowly Grave of the Dear Man
She drops; whilst busy-meddling Memory,
In barbarous Succession, musters up
The past Endearments of their softer Hours,
Tenacious of its Theme. Still, still she thinks
She sees him, and indulging the fond Thought,
Clings yet more closely to the senseless Turf,
Nor heeds the Passenger who looks that Way. (72-84)

30The speaker identifies himself with this revolt against the dictates of death, states with force and emotion the grief and distress that the separation has caused, and will go as far as apostrophizing the tomb itself, reproaching death with this affront to friendship, love, and social ties. One can see from all this that the feelings of the poet himself are divided between his own attachment to life, his compassion for the widow and her suffering on the one hand, and on the other the theme that informs the poem throughout, the message of the promise of eternal life after death. Blair here creates a convincing feeling of solidarity between the tearful widow, the poet who recounts what he sees, and the fleeting reference to a third figure, the discreet traveller who happens to be passing by, who is witness to the scene. He could just as well be the poet himself, as anyone at all, an everyman, the reader himself. In this way the reader is drawn further into the drama and participates in this community of feeling.

31At the same time that Blair’s Grave appeared, the publication of one of the most popular and remarkable poems of the eighteenth century (at least in its influence and reputation at the time and for decades to come in Britain and on the Continent) was underway. Edward Young’s “Night the First” opens with a scene of desolation and bereavement. The poet is presented as being alone, at night, unable to sleep, assailed by his unruly thoughts, burdened with a feeling of absolute despair. The life of the author of the Night Thoughts (published anonymously at first) aroused the curiosity of readers as soon as the first Night was published in 1742. Young introduced enigmatic elements in the form of references to a personal tragedy, alluded to and passed over, at least provisionally (1. 208-216), the deaths of three people dear to the poet, two women and a man, in a period of three months, and to whom Young gives the names, when they appear in the poem, Philander, Narcissa and Lucia.

32Again, all here below is ephemeral and the bereavements are there to remind us of this, proclaims Young. The deceased themselves are messages, warnings, lessons, tokens, which teach us sympathy as well as generosity, essential elements of the sentimentalist credo. Tears again are evoked, and again they have something to teach us. Here they teach us to express and share our emotions, but also to question them, to create a community knitted together by emotion and grief, through the poetry itself:

What then am I, who sorrow for myself?
In Age, in Infancy, from other’s aid
Is all our Hope; to teach us to be kind.
That, Nature’s first, last Lesson to mankind:
The selfish Heart deserves the pain it feels;
More generous Sorrow while it sinks, exalts,
And conscious Virtue mitigates the Pang.
Nor Virtue, more than Prudence, bids me give
Swoln Thought a second channel; who divide,
They weaken too, the Torrent of their grief:
Take then, O World! thy much-indebted Tear. (1. 295-305)

33The first death, that of his friend, the husband of his step-daughter Elizabeth, Henry Temple (Philander), is recounted in “Night the Second”. In the following Night, we learn of the death of Elizabeth (Narcissa) herself. Young exploits the image of tears shed in lines that are abrupt, jerky, compact, like the sobs themselves, as if to mimic the grief that these deaths closely following each other have caused:

Narcissa follows, e’er His tomb is clos’d.
Woes cluster; rare are solitary Woes;
They love a Train; they tread each other’s Heel:
Her Death invades His mournful right, and claims
The Grief that started from my Lids for Him;
Seizes the faithless, alienated Tear,
Or shares it, e’er It falls. So frequent Death,
Sorrow, He more than causes, He confounds;
For human Sighs his rival Strokes contend,
And make Distress, Distraction. Oh Philander!
What was thy Fate? A double Fate to me;
Portent, and Pain! a Menace, and a Blow! (3. 62-73)

34Young possessed a lively imagination which at times strains against the limits. Here he plays (if that is the proper word) with those limits through the fashioning of a baroque image of the grief that resulted from Narcissa’s demise violently seizing (the whole scene is presented like a military campaign: invade / seize) the tears shed for Philander. It’s as though there was a potlatch, a desperate rivalry between the two distresses, a competition which is nonetheless to be resolved by a sharing, an eminently sentimental quality, the sharing of the tear. The idea that a tear while yet running down the cheek, at the very moment it is falling, should become unfaithful, albeit momentarily, to the emotion that engendered it is, at the least, unexpected.

  • 29 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins, Arden Shakespeare, London and New York, Routledge, (...)
  • 30 “In the winter of 1741, as Young was composing ‘Night 3’, Farquhar’s play, Sir Harry Wildair, was b (...)

35The poetic account of the death and the truncated funeral rites of Narcissa as related in “Night the Third” has famous literary antecedents. Similar dramas are to be found in Sophocles’ Antigone, in Shakespeare, in the passage that relates the “incomplete rites” that accompany the burial of Ophelia (referred to as “maimed rites” in the text)29 but also as Stephen Cornford points out, with George Farquhar (?1677–1707), in an incident in the first act of Sir Harry Wildair (1701).30 This strong and “spontaneous” emotion that Young dramatizes thus has a long literary tradition. But to find echoes still more contemporary with Young one can recall Pope’s “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” (1717), lines that pay homage to a lady who is denied a Christian burial because she had committed suicide.

  • 31 These details are not explicit in the poem. Young’s most recent biographer, Harold Forster, provide (...)

36In Young’s poem, the poet’s family leave with Narcissa, who is ill, for the South of France, seeking a more clement climate which will enable her to recover her health and strength. Elizabeth (Narcissa) dies in Lyon and is refused a Christian burial because of her Protestant faith.31 The pathetic capital to be made from such a scene for a poet such as Young is obvious. Narcissa is young and beautiful; she has just married, then falls ill and dies in a foreign land in which the usual funeral rites are refused her. Her father (or step-father) ends up burying her himself at night, in secret, like a criminal, like a murderer as he himself puts it and sees it. Her tomb will bear no epitaph, not even her name. The pathos is brought to a climax in this accumulation and orchestration of moving detail. Here is an extract from Young’s narrative:

Turn, hopeless Thought! turn from Her: Thought repell’d,
Resenting rallies, and wakes every Woe.
Snatcht e’er thy Prime! and in thy bridal Hour!
And when kind Fortune, with thy Lover, smil’d!
And when high-flavour’d thy fresh-op’ning Joys!
And when blind man pronounc’d thy bliss compleat!
And on a Foreign Shore! Where Strangers wept!
Strangers to Thee, and more surprizing still,
Strangers to Kindness, wept: Their eyes let fall
Inhuman Tears; strange tears! that trickled down
From marble Hearts! obdurate Tenderness!
A Tenderness that call’d them more severe,
In Spight of Nature’s soft Persuasion Steel’d:
While Nature melted, Superstition rav’d;
That, mourn’d the Dead; and This deny’d a Grave. (3. 148-162)

37The tears wept here are the fruit of ambivalent sentiments. Instead of being the emblem of sensibility they become “Inhuman Tears”, a quasi oxymoron. These are strange, unnatural tears that flow from a heart of stone, from “marble Hearts”. But those who shed these tears, these “strangers”, are themselves far from being insensitive to the dramatic scene; they are themselves prey to contradictory and irreconcilable demands and emotions, expressed by the oxymorons “marble hearts” and “obdurate tenderness”. Young, here again, questions himself on the meaning of tears, the ambivalent value that they can have, and he was to pursue his interrogations at some length in the passage of Night the Fifth quoted above.

  • 32 All quotes are from “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard” in Thomas Gray and William Collins. Po (...)

38Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard does not begin with the evocation of night but of twilight, an in-between, transitional world of process and effacement which, in many respects, informs the poem throughout. The poetic voice is always solitary, the meditation on death and memory always present, and emotion and tears are never far. Night falls. The ploughman returns to his hearth and home; the world loses its contours and its substance. All that remains, already at the end of the first stanza, is the darkness and a “me”: “And leaves the world to darkness and to me”.32 An isolated gaze contemplates the nocturnal world which has taken over; a disembodied voice meditates on life and death, on the passage of time, on social inequalities, on “the rude Forefathers of the hamlet” (16). The world withdraws with the close of day, leaving the space for the uneasy meditation to unfold.

39In his mind, however, the poet, the persona, after having described the movements and sounds, a physical, material world which is effaced by the advent of night, looking at the humblest of the graveyard’s inhabitants, rendered “visible” by the mounds that form their tombs (here there is a clear echo of Parnell), imagines and evokes the life that the country-dwellers who are buried there had or could or would have had, the pleasures and destinies they enjoyed or might have enjoyed but no longer can or will. This reminder, imaged and imaginary, reinforces the sense of loss, all the more so as the pleasures evoked and now gone are those of a natural, idealized world, in which are described the created world, family scenes, and in which the weary ploughman conjured up in the first stanza, who wends his way homewards and to rest, finds a negative mirror image in those who will never again find wife, children and hearth. A key element of sentimentalism is often present in this graveyard poetry in the reference to those of modest condition and to a “shared” final destiny. Although Gray evokes in his mind’s eye the powerful, warriors and writers, this graveyard only houses far more modest occupants.

40Gray, in his turn, pleads for universal solidarity, introducing along the way the customary moral truths about the futility of earthly riches and honours:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave. (33-36)

41Like Parnell, Blair and Young, he recalls the irrevocable character of death, underlining again like the other graveyard poets, that the life of the senses is irretrievable, that the monuments erected in honour of the departed are themselves all in vain:

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death? (41-44)

42And yet later the poet seems to go back on his tracks, and in the stanzas Samuel Johnson was to single out as “original” (stanzas 20-23), the speaker’s empathy for the humble, poor and unlettered leads him to evoke the necessity of some tribute to their passing, a tribute of remembrance in the form, above all, of regret and tears:

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unlettered muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the chearful day,
Nor cast one longing ling’ring look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires. (81-92)

  • 33 J. McGann, op. cit., p. 29. Gray’s poem resembles its subject in the sense that as McGann writes: “ (...)

43As in Blair and Young, the poet continually shuttles back and forth between the particular and the universal. Here the sentimentalism expresses itself clearly; no one dies without nostalgia, without regret at the passing, says Gray. The aftermath of death is the grief and emotion it causes in the living. Faced with the reality of death, the sentiments are shared by all, the powerful and the humble, the rich and the poor. In lingering a while (several stanzas) around these modest tombs, Gray invites and even urges the reader to repair this injustice, the forgetting of those who have humble destinies, and shares this levelling morality with the other poets.33 The social, egalitarian and Christian character of sentimentalism is present here. Yet Gray, unlike Blair and Young, voices his thoughts in a register that is much more humanist or neutral than it is Christian in tenor.

44Once again the death that is staged is ours. The final tableau that the epitaph presents could not be more restrained and excessive. The unknown poet gives to “Mis’ry” all he possesses, a tear, that is to say his emotional, his most authentic, self:

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompence as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend. (121-124)

45It is as though emotion and sentiment were indeed inalienable and inestimable characteristics of man. At the end of this process of dispossession and negativity that permeates the poem, that infiltrates gradually, inexorably, always with a guiding, controlling hand, Gray has reached, in his manner, the apogee of sentimental expression, by focusing the reader’s gaze on a vulnerable, sincere, anonymous, and, in the proper sense of the word, generous character.

  • 34 H. Weinfield, op. cit., p. 137-140.

46The reader both observes and is drawn into, in a way that is as unparalleled as it is discreet, the elaboration of a mise en abyme, a mirror effect where the narrator suddenly but seamlessly separates off, becomes a double. The voices present on the page in the form of pronouns are replaced, pass the relay, seem at once to converge and to blend when evoking the sadness of the death of the poet, but also his (already in the mid-eighteenth century) identity as an outsider, a further element that creates compassion. Thus it is that universality is associated with anonymity, through the use of what Henry Weinfield calls “the blurring of persons and pronouns”, a paradoxical strategy (curiously precise and disturbing) of identification and non-differentiation.34

For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred Spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed Swain may say,
‘Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
‘Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
‘To meet the sun upon the upland lawn. (93-100)

47With no forewarning the “I” we have listened to and followed for twenty-three stanzas becomes a “thee”, perhaps a double addressing himself, a figure either more impersonal and universal, or perhaps another rustic poet, and then, with the introduction of the swain and his short poetic narrative, a “him” seen (and then no longer to be seen, when he dies) by a “we”. It is as if the poet foreseeing, and indeed foretelling, his own death, was composing his own funeral elegy, writing his own epitaph, weeping in anticipation before his own tomb. The voices converge and blend into each other. And the reader is called on to play his part. Who is speaking? Who is writing? Who is reading? Gray provides here the curious example of a sentimentalism which translates and expresses a fellow-feeling and narcissism whose vocation is universal. The reader is drawn into the circle of the speakers in the poem.

  • 35 “In the Elegy […] the introduction of the tombstone and the reading of the epitaph do not express t (...)

48Gray’s poem creates and remains a space of uncertainty. Despite the narrative of the poet’s disappearance, despite the monument in the form of verses recounting his end doubling, so one imagines, as an epitaph, there is no closure. The questions the poem taken as a whole circles around, approaches but never resolves, remain open. Its lack of closure is a strength, not a failing; a lack of closure built up around the careful and dense layering of detail, surmise, apprehension and anxiety, always revolving like a spiral around a central absence. There is, as Williamson suggests, no simple Christian message of salvation here.35 In this treatment of a highly conventional theme, in a poem steeped in literary references, almost a cento, the end, despite the apparent finality of the epitaph, a verbal tombstone, remains curiously unfinished, like incomplete poetic rites. The poet himself remains anonymous.

  • 36 W. B. Hutchings, op. cit.

49It is a poem built on surmise, on hypothetical identification; the humble village dead could have had other lives. Things could have been otherwise. There is a strange game going on of wishful thinking, of conjecture and projection, of projected nostalgia and regret. If Gray does confront and rehearse his own death, it is in a very roundabout way, and if the poem is markedly different from the more traditional graveyard poems of Parnell, Blair and Young, as indeed it is (though Night Thoughts has a range of theme and reflection that goes far beyond the graveyard genre), it stands out because of what W. B. Hutchings has called its “instability”.36

50We see towards the beginning of the century in Parnell’s A Night-Piece on Death that the intention to inform, reform, convince and entertain the reader on the subject of the fear of death, to reassure him or her about the afterlife, could be elegantly achieved without shedding tears. In the three later poems, tears play a role alongside the other elements that go to make graveyard poems an identifiable genre. When Young sketches out his “philosophy of tears” in “Night the Fifth”, speculating on the gamut of people’s hidden or unconscious motives for exhibiting their emotions, simulating, hiding behind or unable to hold back these manifestations of sorrow, he presents tears as a complex, elusive phenomenon, at times insincere, a show of feeling, while also acknowledging that emotion can be overpowering and take people unawares. In Young’s own personal experience of bereavement (and its poetic transcription), in the tearful widow episode in Blair’s The Grave, and in Gray’s both discreet and highly sentimental use of the tear at the end of his poetic meditation, we see that the overt literary expression of sensibility does come into its own in the middle of the eighteenth century. The tear comes to epitomize and encapsulate the external sense-informed and sentimental reaction to intimate, emotional loss.

51One can see from these poems so different and yet recognizably similar, all addressing a time-honoured and universal theme, that sensibility is not only the expression, the valorisation, the literary exploitation, of emotion but also a codified, ostentatious process of emotionalizing with an aim to amending the heart of man. It elaborates a specular emotion, self-scrutinizing, both narcissistic and generous, an emotional response which reflects on itself too. This double nature of sentimentalism is manifest in its theatricality, its often hyperbolic, artificial representation. We are invited to attend a spectacle, a performance, a display of sentiments.

  • 37 H. Weinfield, op. cit., p. xviii-xix.

52I will conclude by suggesting that the restless movement of the poet across this sacred space that is a graveyard, a random, quasi disembodied but sense-informed progress in a circumscribed area, within a space dedicated to absence, memory and loss, mimics the movement of the mind and the imagination which divagate, which seek to make sense of this experience of ultimate loss which is death. To use Henry Weinfield’s words on the Elegy, the sense of Gray’s poem becomes the quest itself for meaning through the description and decipherment of the manifest signs of absence: “For the Elegy seems to me to be not only a philosophical poem but one whose ‘meaning’ is temporally grounded in the poem’s struggle to arrive at meaning”.37

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1 “Epistle to Robert Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer”, dedication preceding Poems on Several Occasions. Written by Thomas Parnell, published by Alexander Pope, London, 1722.

2 Virgil, Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid, 1-6, trans. H. R. Fairclough, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press and London, Heinemann, 1974; Aeneid, 5. 867-871 and 6. 1-2.

3 Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. W. F. Jackson Knight, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1970, p. 146-147.

4 Virgil, Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid, 1-6, op. cit., 6. 362-383.

5 Michel Ragon writes that funeral practices are far from being universal and uniform across time and cultures: “A horror of the decomposing corpse is a constant in all civilizations and gave rise to the ritual of mourning performed by the survivors, which lasted as long as the decomposition of the body. But, contrary to what most historians of death have believed, not all peoples have venerated their dead, and some, for quite long periods in history, have quite simply abandoned their corpses”, in The Space of Death. A Study of Funerary Architecture, Decoration, and Urbanism, trans. Alan Sheridan, Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1983, p. 3-4.

6 This is how Paul Van Tieghem describes “la poésie nocturne et sépulcrale” in his 1921 study, La Poésie de la nuit et des tombeaux en Europe au XVIIIe siècle, Genève, Slatkine Reprints, 1970, p. 4.

7 In the preface to the second edition of L’Homme et la mort (Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1976), Edgar Morin writes: “la mort – c’est-à-dire le refus de la mort, les mythes de la survie, la résurrection, l’immortalité” (p. 18-19).

8 David Morris, “A Poetry of Absence”, in John Sitter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 225-248, p. 225.

9 Éric Parisot, Graveyard Poetry: Religion, Aesthetics and the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Poetic Condition, Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, Vermont, Ashgate, 2013, p. 6.

10 Ibid., p. 5.

11 Ibid., p. 9. For discussions of Gray’s poetic “instability”, see W. B. Hutchings, “Syntax of Death: Instability in Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’”, Studies in Philology, 81.4, Autumn 1984, p. 496-514; Henry Weinfield, The Poet Without a Name: Gray’s Elegy and the Problem of History, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Southern Illinois University Press, 1991; Paul Williamson, “Gray’s Elegy and the Logic of Expression”, in W. B. Hutchings and William Ruddick (eds.), Thomas Gray: Contemporary Essays, Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1993.

12 Blaise Pascal, Article III, “De la nécessité du pari”, *194, Pensées, ed. Brunschvicg, Paris, Éditions Garnier, 1964, p. 124. Joseph Walker provides the following translation: “The Immortality of the Soul is a thing that so much regards, and so deeply concerns us, that we might have quite lost our Feeling not to be profoundly affected about it: All our Thoughts and Actions should be so variously directed, according to the Eternal rewards that are to be, or not to be hoped for; that ’tis impossible to stir a right step without directing it by this Compass, which must be our last Object”, Monsieur Pascall’s Thoughts, Meditations, and Prayers, Touching Matters Moral and Divine, done into English by Joseph Walker, London, 1688, p. 41.

13 All quotations from Young’s Night Thoughts follow Stephen Cornford’s edition, Edward Young: “Night Thoughts”, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989. All subsequent references are given in the text in the form of the “Night” reference, followed by the line number, both in Arabic numerals.

14 Edward Young, A Poem on the Last Day, Oxford, 1713.

15 Edward Young, Cynthio. A Poem on the Death of John Brydges, Marquis of Carnarvon, London, 1727.

16 É. Parisot, op. cit., p. 105.

17 Michèle S. Plaisant, La Sensibilité dans la poésie anglaise au début du XVIIIe siècle : évolution et transformations, 2 vols., Université de Lille III, Service de reproduction des thèses, 1974, p. 134-135. “The sensualists attempt to formulate psychological laws putting trust in the experiences and reactions of the subject. This attitude has important consequences concerning literature for, in according the sensation or the impression a privileged status, Locke suggests that the art of writing does not consist in applying a series of strict rules, but proceeds, rather, from the internal activity of the soul”.

18 Robert N. Essick and Morton D. Paley, “Introduction: The Poet in the Graveyard” in Robert Blair, “The Grave” Illustrated by William Blake. A Study with Facsimile, London, Scolar Press, 1982, p. 3-17, here p. 4.

19 Ibid., p. 4.

20 Edward Young, Love of Fame, The Universal Passion. In Seven Characteristical Satires, London, 1728.

21 Edward Young, Two Epistles for Mr. Pope, concerning the Authors of the Age, London, 1730.

22 Almost no tears at all. Swift’s closest friends and literary accomplices were, as it pleased Swift to portray them, but very moderately affected. Others, not at all: “Here shift the Scene, to represent / How those I love, my Death lament. / Poor Pope will grieve a Month; and Gay / A Week; and Arbuthnot a Day. / St. John himself will scarce forbear, / To bite his Pen, and drop a Tear. / The rest will give a Shrug, and cry, / I’m sorry; but we all must dye. / Indifference, clad in Wisdom’s Guise, / All Fortitude of Mind supplies: / For how can stony Bowels melt, / In those who never Pity felt; / When We are lash’d, They kiss the Rod; / Resigning to the Will of God” (205-218). Jonathan Swift, Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D. (1739), eds. Robert A. Greenberg and William Bowman Piper, The Writings of Jonathan Swift, New York and London, W. W. Norton and Company, 1973.

23 Alexander Pope oversaw the posthumous publication of Parnell’s poems in a volume, Poems on Several Occasions, London, printed for B. Lintot, dated 1722. Pope included a dedication in verse to the memory of his friend, addressed to the Right Honourable Robert, Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer.

24 Thomas Parnell, “A Night-Piece on Death” in Collected Poems of Thomas Parnell, eds. Claude Rawson and F. P. Lock, Delaware, Newark, University of Delaware Presses, 1989.

25 “As we know, tears are the proper emblem of the literatures of sensibility and sentiment”, Jerome McGann, The Poetics of Sensibility. A Revolution in Literary Style, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996, p. 7.

26 See James A. Means’ Introduction in Robert Blair.The Grave. A Poem”, The Augustan Reprint Society, 161, University of California, Los Angeles, William Clark Memorial Library, 1973, p. ii-iii. The quotations come from this edition (the first edition) published in London in 1743.

27 To a Mouse, On turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November, 1785”, in Robert Burns, Poems and Songs, ed. James Kinsley, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 102.

28 J. A. Means, op. cit., p. v. “All told, Burns quotes passages from The Grave in seven different letters from 1787 to 1792; and, since his citations are not always exact, one may assume, I think, that he was quoting from memory”.

29 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins, Arden Shakespeare, London and New York, Routledge, 1990, 5. 1. 212.

30 “In the winter of 1741, as Young was composing ‘Night 3’, Farquhar’s play, Sir Harry Wildair, was being performed in London”, S. Cornford, op. cit., p. 20.

31 These details are not explicit in the poem. Young’s most recent biographer, Harold Forster, provides details and dates of the circumstances: “Elizabeth was attacked by consumption, and in the autumn of 1736 the young couple, accompanied by her mother and stepfather, crossed to France and began to make their way down to the warmer sun of the Riviera. But poor Elizabeth never reached their destination. On 8 October 1736 she died, aged eighteen, and on the 10th she was buried in the Protestant cemetery at Lyons”, Harold Forster, Edward Young: The Poet of the “Night Thoughts”, 1683-1765, Alburgh, Erskine, 1986, p. 149.

32 All quotes are from “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard” in Thomas Gray and William Collins. Poetical Works, ed. Roger Lonsdale, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 33-39.

33 J. McGann, op. cit., p. 29. Gray’s poem resembles its subject in the sense that as McGann writes: “the Elegy, like death, is a levelling engine”.

34 H. Weinfield, op. cit., p. 137-140.

35 “In the Elegy […] the introduction of the tombstone and the reading of the epitaph do not express the certainty of Christian resurrection; rather, as Hutchings argues, the ‘conventionally Christian context’ of the epitaph merely allows Gray to ‘sustain the uncertainty’”, P. Williamson, op. cit., p. 66.

36 W. B. Hutchings, op. cit.

37 H. Weinfield, op. cit., p. xviii-xix.

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John Baker, « “The Philosophy of Tears”: Sense(s) and sensibility in some graveyard poems »Études Épistémè [En ligne], 30 | 2016, mis en ligne le 30 janvier 2017, consulté le 02 octobre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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John Baker

John Baker is Maître de conférences (Senior Lecturer) in English in the Languages Department of the Université Paris 1 – Panthéon-Sorbonne. He has published on various aspects of eighteenth-century poetry, on themes such as the night, originality, theodicy and melancholy. He contributed to the co-authored volume Melancholy Experience in the Literature of the Long Eighteenth Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). His research interests include poetry and the history of ideas in the long eighteenth century.

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