Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Death looms large in poetry, from epitaphs to poems of grief over the loss of a loved one. And, of course, there’s a long-standing tradition of religious or sacred poems. But what about churchyards, graveyards, and cemeteries – those spaces around the church filled with the dead, with epitaphs by turns moving and cringeworthy, with yew trees and with flowers brought in memory of the deceased?
Below we attempt to introduce ten of the very greatest poems about churchyards.
1. Thomas Gray, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds …
Of course, this classic eighteenth-century poem had to feature in our list of the best churchyard poems! The ‘country churchyard’ referred to in the poem’s title belonged to St Giles’ parish church at Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire.
‘Gray’s Elegy’ (as it’s often known) was partly inspired by the death of another poet, Richard West, in 1742, but became a grand meditation on death and the simple memorials left behind by rustic village folk rather than statesmen and celebrated figures. The poem also gave Thomas Hardy the phrase ‘far from the madding crowd’ for use as the title of his fourth published novel.
2. Charlotte Smith, ‘Written in the Churchyard at Middleton in Sussex’.
Pressed by the Moon, mute arbitress of tides,
While the loud equinox its power combines,
The sea no more its swelling surge confines,
But o’er the shrinking land sublimely rides …
Smith (1749-1806) offers a sonnet about a seaside graveyard that is battered by the stormy elements, in an early version of what the Romantics (successors to the Graveyard School) would call, following Edmund Burke, ‘the Sublime’: ‘The wild blast, rising from the western cave, / Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed; / Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead, / And breaks the silent sabbath of the grave!’
The poem reflects the wild, turbulent nature of the sea, which – under pressure from the moon, whose gravitational force causes the tides – breaks free from its confines to flood the seaside churchyard. Accompanying the powerful waves of the sea, the wind’s force is so great that it succeeds in disturbing the dead bodies in the churchyard which lie buried there.
3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Old Yew, Which Graspeth at the Stones’.
Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones …
This churchyard poem is actually one canto from a much longer poem, a book-length elegy which Tennyson wrote about the death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. That long poem, In Memoriam, was published in 1850. In this canto, Tennyson visits the graveyard where Hallam has been interred and addresses the yew tree that stands there – and has stood there, enduring the seasons, for a thousand years.
4. Matthew Arnold, ‘Haworth Churchyard’.
I beheld; the obscure
Saw the famous. Alas!
Years in number, it seem’d
Lay before both, and a fame
Heighten’d, and multiplied power.
Behold! The elder, to-day,
Lies expecting from Death,
In mortal weakness, a last
Summons: the younger is dead …
Published in 1855, the year that the last Brontë sister, Charlotte, died, this poem contains a slight error (the graves of the Brontë sisters are inside the local church, not out in the churchyard), but given Arnold’s placing of them outside, we’d say this fine tribute to the Brontë family (as well as a friend of Charlotte Brontë’s, the novelist and campaigner Harriet Martineau) more than earns its place on this list.
5. Thomas Hardy, ‘In the Cemetery’.
‘You see those mothers squabbling there?’
Remarks the man of the cemetery.
‘One says in tears, “’Tis mine lies here!”
Another, “Nay, mine, you Pharisee!”
Another, “How dare you move my flowers
And put your own on this grave of ours!”
But all their children were laid therein
At different times, like sprats in a tin …’
Hardy was a prolific poet, with a notoriously pessimistic outlook; so it’s probably of little surprise to find him haunting this list of great graveyard poems. A variation on the sonnet form – one of only a few ‘sonnets’ Hardy wrote in his vast oeuvre – this poem sees bereft mothers squabbling over whose son is buried where, unaware that the bodies of the deceased have been moved to make way for … a new drain.
6. Robert Frost, ‘In a Disused Graveyard’.
A beautiful short poem about the living visiting the graveyard to pay their respects to the dead.
Using the traditional quatrain form with rhyming couplets, Frost wonders what the tombstones themselves would think of the fact that no new dead are ever interred in the disused graveyard, giving the impression that the living have become immortal. (Needless to say, this poor paraphrase doesn’t come close to doing justice to Frost’s poem.)
7. Andrew Young, ‘Passing the Graveyard’.
Young (1885-1971) was a Scottish poet. In ‘Passing the Graveyard’, from Young’s 1939 collection Speak to the Earth, he draws on scientific understanding of the body: that all of our cells are replaced roughly every seven years, meaning we wear a new ‘dress’ from the one we wore a few years ago.
Addressing the dead, Young reflects that dying should therefore be viewed as little more than undressing and going to bed. A beautiful poem which makes superb use of the triplet stanza form.
8. Richard Wilbur, ‘In a Churchyard’.
A direct response to the classic poem which headed this list of the best poems about graves, Gray’s ‘Elegy’, and thus the ideal poem to read in conjunction with Gray’s great poem of over two centuries before.
9. Sylvia Plath, ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’.
Written in October 1961 as she was beginning to find her own distinctive poetic voice, ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ is one of the most widely discussed and analysed of Sylvia Plath’s poems. Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, suggested that she write a poem about the view outside their bedroom window.
Hughes later recalled that, from the window of their house in Devon, they could see a yew tree in the churchyard to the west of their house. On the morning in question, the full moon was visible just behind the yew tree, and Hughes gave Plath the idea of writing about the scene.
10. Tony Harrison, V.
This long poem was written in 1985 during the Miners’ Strike in Britain, and was written by one of the finest poets to write about class in the last hundred years.
The starting-point is Harrison’s own attempts to clean up his parents’ gravestones which have been defaced by football hooligans and far-right thugs; the poem ends up being perhaps the definitive statement of 1980s Britain, taking in Margaret Thatcher, class, race, immigration, and left-right clashes in politics. It also contains some very strong language – you have been warned!
If you enjoyed this selection of the best poems about graves, you might also like these classic poetic statements about death and these fine church poems. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Thanks for the excellent list. I’d recommend :
Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep – Poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye
Worthy of inclusion !
One that nearly made the top 10 and a worthy addition – thanks!
A fine set again, including (as you so often do!) I few I didn’t know. Coincidently, I’ve just finished reading The Spoon River Anthology which is an entire volume of graveyard poems once fairly popular in the U.S, It’s based in part on Latin epigraphs (in a balance of satire and transformation). One thing that surprised me, and caused me to read this work in it’s entirety was how early it came in the Modernist movement. Somehow I’d informally (and erroneously) placed it in the 20s–when, in fact, selections were first published (in Reedy’s Mirror) before WWI and the book appeared in 1915, so Masters was writing about the time “Prufrock” was being written by Eliot, and Spoon River the book was published ahead of “Prufrock” in Monroe’s Poetry by a couple of months.
Another error in my informal idea of the book was due to the un-representative selections most often anthologized, which lead me to think of it as a nostalgic and genteel. Taken as a whole, it’s not that at all! The use of rape and a variety of terrible marriages made me think of “The Waste Land” still to come. About 3/4 of the way through Philomela and Tereus make an appearance in Spoon River and I even began to wonder if about possible influence on Eliot from Masters’ Spoon River in “The Waste Land.”
In Italy the English graveyard school of poetry greatly influenced one of our greatest 19th century poet, Ugo Foscolo, who wrote the long poem I sepolcri (The graves) which quotes Gray directly.