Graveyard Poems

Kirke White’s precocity seemed to the readers who bought his posthumous poems in their thousands all the more remarkable because it involved configuring, in arresting images and strange dramas, his own death from consumption—as if he somehow was gifted with the ability to prophesy.  The morbid and macabre are present in pieces such as ‘The Dance of the Consumptives’, written as early as fifteen—and they are intensified by the readers’ retrospective awareness that Kirke White did indeed die from the disease whose effect he depicts.  Thus he seems to be grotesquely laughing at his own fate. The same feedback loop operated with Keats, of course: he too was read as morbidly depicting his own fate in the narratives he composed about sickness and bodily decay—whether ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ or the ‘Ode on Melancholy’.  In this respect, he was read in terms already established for Kirke White.   The presence of Endymion in ‘The Dance of the Consumptives’, alongside its macabre imagery of deflowered eyes, thrones of bones and charnel houses, and its view of life as a journey ‘darksome, joyless, and forlorn’ also suggests that Keats read and was strongly influenced by it.

THE DANCE OF THE CONSUMPTIVES [PUBLISHED IN REMAINS (1807), I, 295-302]

      DING-DONG! ding-dong!
  Merry, merry go the bells,
      Ding-dong! Ding-dong!
Over the heath, over the moor, and over the dale,
      ‘Swinging slow with sullen roar,’
Dance, dance away, the jocund roundelay!
Ding-dong, ding-dong, calls us away.

Round the oak, and round the elm,
    Merrily foot it o’er the ground!
  The sentry ghost it stands aloof,
    So merrily, merrily, foot it round.
      Ding-dong! ding-dong!
      Merry, merry, go the bells,
    Swelling in the nightly gale.
        The sentry ghost,
        It keeps its post,
    And soon, and soon, our sports must fail!
But let us trip the nightly ground,
While the merry, merry, bells ring round.

Hark! Hark! The death-watch ticks!
  See, see, the winding-sheet!
    Our dance is done,
    Our race is run,
  And we must lie at the alder’s feet!
    Ding-dong, ding-dong,
    Merry, merry go the bells,
Swinging o’er the weltering wave!
    And we must seek
    Our death-beds bleak,
Where the green sod grows upon the grave.

They vanish—The Goddess of Consumption descends, habited in a sky-blue Robe, Attended by mournful Music.

Come, Melancholy, sister mine!
  Cold the dews, and chill the night:
Come from thy dreary shrine!
  The wan moon climbs the heavenly height,
    And underneath her sickly ray,
    Troops of squalid spectres play,
    And the dying mortals groan,
    Startles the night on her dusky throne.
    Come, come, sister mine!
    Gliding on the pale moonshine:
      We’ll ride at ease
      On the tainted breeze,
    And Oh! Our sport will be divine.

The Goddess of Melancholy advances out of a deep Glen in the rear, habited in black, and covered with a thick Veil.—She speaks.

    Sister, from my dark abode,
    Where nests the raven, sits the toad,
    Hither I come, at thy command,
    Sister, sister, join thy hand!
    I will smooth the way for thee,
    Thou shalt furnish food for me.
    Come, let us speed our way
    Where the troops of spectres play.
To charnel-houses, church-yards drear,
Where Death sits with a horrible leer,
A lasting grin, on a throne of bones,
And skim along the blue tomb-stones.
    Come, let us speed away,
  Lay our snares, and spread our tether!
    I will smooth the way for thee,
    Thou shalt furnish food for me;
      And the grass shall wave
      O’er many a grave,
  Where youth and beauty sleep together.

CONSUMPTION.

    Come, let us speed our way!
Join our hands, and spread our tether!
    I will furnish food for thee,
    Thou shalt smooth the way for me;
      And the grass shall wave
      O’er many a grave,
Where youth and beauty sleep together.

MELANCHOLY.

Hist, sister, hist! who comes here;
Oh! I know her by that tear,
By that blue eye’s languid glare,
By her skin, and by her hair:
      She is mine,
      And she is thine,
Now the deadliest draught prepare.

CONSUMPTION.

In the dismal night air drest
I will creep into her breast;
Flush her cheek, and bleach her skin,
And feed on the vital fire within.
Lover, do not trust her eyes,—
When they sparkle most, she dies!
Mother, do not trust her breath,—
Comfort she will breathe in death!
Father, do not strive to save her,—
She is mine, and I must have her!
The coffin must be her bridal bed;
The winding-sheet must wrap her head;
The whispering winds must o’er her sigh,
For soon in the grave the maid must lie.
      The worm it will riot
      On heavenly diet,
When death has deflower’d her eye.

[They vanish. While Consumption speaks Angelina enters.]

ANGELINA.

With[1] what a silent and dejected pace
Dost thou, wan moon! upon thy way advance
In the blue welkin’s vault!—Pale wanderer!
Hast thou too felt the pangs of hopeless love,
That thus, with such a melancholy grace,
Thou dost pursue thy solitary course!
Has thy Endymion, smooth-fac’d boy, forsook
Thy widow’d breast—on which the spoiler oft
Has nestled fondly, while the silver clouds
Fantastic pillow’d thee, and the dim night,
Obsequious to thy will, encurtain’d round
With its thick fringe thy couch?—Wan traveller,
How like thy fate to mine!—Yet I have still
One heavenly hope remaining, which thou lack’st;
My woes will soon be buried in the grave
Of kind forgetfulness:—my journey here.
Tho’ it be darksome, joyless, and forlorn,
Is yet but short, and soon my weary feet
Will greet the peaceful inn of lasting rest.
But thou, unhappy Queen! art doom’d to trace
Thy lonely walk in the drear realms of night,
While many a lagging age shall sweep beneath
The leaden pinions of unshaken time;
Tho’ not a hope shall spread its glittering hue
To cheat thy steps along the weary way.


O that the sum of human happiness
Should be so trifling, and so frail withal,
That when possest, it is but lessen’d grief;
And even then there’s scarce a sudden gust
That blows across the dismal waste of life,
But bears it from the view.—O! who would shun
The hour that cuts from earth, and fear to press
The calm and peaceful pillows of the grave,
And yet endure the various ills of life,
And dark vicissitude!—Soon, I hope, I feel,
And am assured, that I shall lay my head,
My weary aching head, on its last rest,
And on my lowly bed, the grass green sod
Will flourish sweetly.—And then they will weep,
That one so young, and what they’re pleas’d to call
So beautiful, should die so soon.—And tell
How painful disappointment’s canker’d fang
Wither’d the rose upon my maiden cheek.
Oh, foolish ones! why, I shall sleep so sweetly,
Laid in my darksome grave, that they themselves
Might envy me my rest!—And as for them,
Who, on the score of former intimacy,
May thus remembrance me—they must themselves
Successive fall.

                            Around the winter fire
(When out-a-doors the biting frost congeals,
And shrill the skater’s irons on the pool
Ring loud, as by the moonlight he performs
His graceful evolutions:) they not long
Shall sit and chat of older times, and feats
Of early youth, but silent, one by one,
Shall drop into their shrouds.—Some, in their age,
Ripe for the sickle; others young, like me,
And falling green beneath th’ untimely stroke.
Thus, in short time, in the church-yard forlorn,
Where I shall lie, my friends will lay them down,
And dwell with me, a happy family.
And oh! thou cruel, yet beloved youth,
Who now hast left me hopeless here to mourn,
Do thou but shed one tear upon my corse
And say that I was gentle, and deserv’d
A better lover, and I shall forgive
All, all thy wrongs;—and then do thou forget
The hapless Margaret, and be as bless’d
As wish can make thee—Laugh, and play, and sing,
With thy dear choice, and never think of me.


Yet hist, I hear a step.—In this dark wood—


[1] Note in Remains (1807), I, 299:] ‘With how sad steps, O Moon! Thou climb’st the skies, / How silently, and with how wan a face!  Sir P. Sidney’ [Astrophil and Stella 31].

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In 1804 Kirke White, already afflicted by deafness that was probably caused by consumption, retired from work at a Nottingham lawyer’s office and took a cottage in a village outside town, on the banks of the River Trent.  There in Wilford he tried to recuperate from physical and mental decline, but his illness, and the graveyard that flanked the river, brought him face to face with mortality.  He was already an admirer of Warton’s melancholy verse—often set on river banks; he also admired Gray.  His new situation led him to write a poem that responds to both—a churchyard, riparian poem in which he muses about the passing of time and the proximity of death.   However, his poem is more Romantic than Warton’s or Gray’s in the sense that it is an apparently spontaneous first-person blank verse effusion, a loosely structured ‘conversation’ poem whose narrator talks to—or thinks about—himself as he goes, in the manner of Coleridge and Wordsworth.  The present moment becomes an avenue for the exploration of past and future. A man of sensibility, ready to shed tears, Kirke White imagines himself lying in the rural churchyard, preferring this fate to burial in a city church. He declares that, wherever his body lies, his spirit will dwell in his native ‘spot’.   He also strikes a distinctly morbid note that was not present in the Lyrical Balladeers but that anticipated, and possibly influenced, Keats, who was similarly fixated by images of the decaying body.   Channelling the gravedigger in Hamlet, Kirke White depicts, in close-up, his hair clinging to the scalp of his buried, ‘mouldering’, head—a grisly image that gives the poem a macabre urgency as does the ‘fast mouldering head’ of Lorenzo in ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’.

LINES WRITTEN IN WILFORD CHURCHYARD, ON RECOVERY FROM SICKNESS [PUBLISHED IN REMAINS (1807), I, 37-39] 

Here would I wish to sleep.—This is the spot
Which I have long mark’d out to lay my bones in;
Tir’d out and wearied with the riotous world,
Beneath this yew I would be sepulchred.
It is a lovely spot! The sultry sun,
From his meridian height, endeavours vainly
To pierce the shadowy foliage, while the zephyr
Comes wafting gently o’er the rippling Trent,
And plays about my wan cheek. ’Tis a nook
Most pleasant. Such a one perchance did Gray
Frequent, as with a vagrant muse he wanton’d.

Come, I will sit me down and meditate,
For I am wearied with my summer’s walk;
And here I may repose in silent ease;
And thus, perchance, when life’s sad journey’s o’er,
My harass’d soul, in this same spot, may find
The haven of its rest—beneath this sod
Perchance may sleep it sweetly, sound as death.

I would not have my corpse cemented down
With brick and stone, defrauding the poor earth worm
Of its predestined dues; no, I would lie
Beneath a little hillock, grass o’ergrown,
Swath’d down with osiers, just as sleep the Cotters.
Yet may not undistinguish’d be my grave;
But there at eve may some congenial soul
Duly resort, and shed a pious tear,
The good man’s benison—no more I ask.
And, oh! (if heavenly beings may look down
From where, with cherubim, inspir’d they sit,
Upon this little dim-discover’d spot,
The earth,) then will I cast a glance below
On him who thus my ashes shall embalm;
And I will weep too, and will bless the wanderer,
Wishing he may not long be doom’d to pine
In this low-thoughted world of darkling woe,
But that, ere long, he reach his kindred skies.

Yet ’twas a silly thought, as if the body,
Mouldering beneath the surface of the earth,
Could taste the sweets of summer scenery,
And feel the freshness of the balmy breeze!
Yet nature speaks within the human bosom,
And, spite of reason, bids it look beyond
His narrow verge of being, and provide
A decent residence for its clayey shell,
Endear’d to it by time. And who would lay
His body in the city burial-place,
To be thrown up again by some rude Sexton,
And yield its narrow house another tenant,
Ere the moist flesh had mingled with the dust,
Ere the tenacious hair had left the scalp,
Expos’d to insult lewd, and wantonness?
No, I will lay me in the village ground;
There are the dead respected. The poor hind,
Unletter’d as he is, would scorn to invade
The silent resting place of death. I’ve seen
The labourer, returning from his toil,
Here stay his steps, and call his children round,
And slowly spell the rudely sculptur’d rhymes,
And, in his rustic manner, moralize.
I’ve mark’d with what a silent awe he’d spoken,
With head uncover’d, his respectful manner,
And all the honours which he paid the grave,
And thought on cities, where e’en cemeteries,
Bestrew’d with all the emblems of mortality,
Are not protected from the drunken insolence
Of wassailers profane, and wanton havock.
Grant, Heav’n, that here my pilgrimage may close!
Yet, if this be denied, where’er my bones
May lie—or in the city’s crouded bounds,
Or scatter’d wide o’er the huge sweep of waters,
Or left a prey on some deserted shore
To the rapacious cormorant,—yet still,
(For why should sober reason cast away
A thought which soothes the soul?) yet still my spirit
Shall wing its way to these my native regions,
And hover o’er this spot. Oh, then I’ll think
Of times when I was seated ’neath this yew
In solemn rumination; and will smile
With joy that I have got my long’d release.