12th June 1750. Graveyard Poets.
A number of pre-Romantic poets in the 18th century known as ‘Graveyard Poets’, due to their obsession with moody meditation, mortality, skulls, coffins and epitaphs, were later recognised as precursors of Gothick novels and the Romantic movement.
Graveyard Poets included Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper and Christopher Smart, but the most memorable Thomas Gray, only one of 12 children to survive infancy, saw his ‘Elegy on a Country Churchyard’ completed Today in 1750, after which he immediately enclosed the poem in a letter to Horace Walpole. (1)
The Elegy was privately circulated, but was widely pirated and printed in Magazine of Magazines, forcing publication in 1751.
The earliest recognised as a Graveyard Poem was Thomas Parnell’s, ‘A Night Piece on Death’ of 1721. Then 20 years later came Edward Young’s, ‘Night Thoughts’, where a lonely traveller in a graveyard reflects lugubriously on death. Then came Robert Blair’s, ‘The Grave’ (1743), where, ‘Wild shrieks have issued from the hollow tomb’. Very uplifting!
Dr.Johnson said of Gray that he spoke in two languages: one public and one private and that he should have spoken more in the private language as in his Elegy where: ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day/the lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea’, one of the best known and loved of any poem’s opening lines.
Thomas Gray wrote in other modes and considered his two best Pindaric Odes (lofty and heroic, after the Greek poet Pindar), were the ‘The Progress of Poesy’ and ‘The Bard’.
These contrasted with the calmer and more reflective Horatian Odes, as in Gray’s, ‘Ode on a distant prospect of Eton College’ (1742): ‘Where ignorance is bliss-tis folly to be wise’.
By using phrases such as, Paths of Glory, Celestial Fire, Far from the Madding Crowd and Kindred Spirits, we are celebrating the genius of Gray, and though only writing 13 poems is regarded as second only to the great Alexander Pope of the 18thc poets.
(1) Son of Robert Walpole.
It was on 3rd June 1750 that Gray moved to Stoke Poges.