Graveyard Poetry: Religion, Aesthetics and the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Poetic Condition

By Thomas, Richard Gough | Irish Gothic Journal, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Graveyard Poetry: Religion, Aesthetics and the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Poetic Condition


Thomas, Richard Gough, Irish Gothic Journal


Eric Parisot, Graveyard Poetry: Religion, Aesthetics and the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Poetic Condition (Farnham, Surrey; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013)

Simply because of its subject matter, Eric Parisot's book would be a much-needed contribution to the field, even if it were not the insightful and thoughtful exploration of the topic that it is. 'Graveyard poetry', a poetic moment that sits uneasily between the Augustans and the Romantics, is an area that has seen little attention in recent years. Meditating on mortality, and of what might be learned of the soul in conversing with the dead, it is a genre often mentioned in passing, relegated to the periphery of gothic, sentimental, or Romantic literature, or as a footnote in cultural histories of death and mourning. A full-length study, centred on the in-depth reading of key texts, is therefore a welcome addition to the study of eighteenth-century literature.

Parisot focuses closely on Robert Blair's The Grave (1743), Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1742-45), and Thomas Gray's Elegy (1751). This comes as little surprise for those conversant with the subject, but it is important to be clear that elucidating the 'mideighteenth-century poetic condition' of the title entails here a discussion of the context that gave birth to these poems rather than a grand survey of the (relatively small) graveyard genre. The foundation of Parisot's study is what the author sees as the period's declining public piety in favour of private religious meditation, and the role of reading within this. The book's first chapter, on the 'theology of poetic salvation', discusses the period's debate over scriptural authority, the role of faith in individual salvation, and the nature of the soul's moral character after death. Though the author recognises the challenge offered to mainstream religious thought by Natural Religionists, Parisot presents here what is arguably only a simple dichotomy between 'Protestant' and Catholic understandings of death, the soul, and the afterlife. In neglecting the very real divisions between the various Dissenting creeds, the Church of Scotland, and the established Church of England, the study fails to address the significance of cultural differences in religious belief and practice that (at the very least) distinguish Blair from his Episcopalian peers.

Parisot's chapter on Blair does not neglect the poet's Calvinism, however, and the author argues that The Grave represents Blair's (ultimately unsuccessful) struggle to reconcile the doctrine of salvation by faith alone with the authority and value of poetry. Parisot asserts that

The poem itself is self-reflexively critiqued as both ephemeral and apocryphal and is presented as a self-sacrificing expression engulfed by its own grave, simultaneously exposing a suspicion of the didactic authority of the poet as a purveyor of self-instruction. (p. 73)

'What remains', writes Parisot, 'is the sense of loss and absence, the subjective experience of death itself' (p. 74).

Conversely, the author sees Young's Night Thoughts as 'an argument for the necessity of faith in poetic works' (p. …

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