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

Eric Parisot. Graveyard Poetry: Religion, Aesthetics and the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Poetic Condition. Farnham, Surrey; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013. x, 184p., ill. ISBN 09781409434733. GBP £95.00 (hardcover).

The ambition of Eric Parisot’s thoughtful and illuminating monograph is encapsulated in the conjunction of its title and subtitle. Graveyard Poetry: Religion, Aesthetics and the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Poetic Condition takes an apparently limited and none too prestigious set of literary sources and claims for it the capacity to illuminate an extensive field of eighteenth-century cultural history. In doing so the study not only pays welcome literary-critical attention to a hitherto neglected sub-genre, but challenges existing narratives of the development of eighteenth-century poetry in the period between the movements traditionally known as Neoclassicism and high Romanticism.

Although “pre-romantic” has been roundly rejected as an unhelpfully teleological description of poetry written in the middle decades of the century, historians have been slow to discover compelling alternative narratives. Parisot’s success in charting this uncertain territory is in part a result of the attention he pays to the print culture in which graveyard poems were produced and consumed. Book historians have long recognised the quantitative significance of religious writing in the eighteenth century, yet the relation of such works to canonical eighteenth-century verse remains relatively understudied. Viewing graveyard poetry against the background of the myriad works of theological controversy and practical devotion that dominated publishers’ lists of the period allows Parisot to argue convincingly that these works were not peripheral but central to the literary culture of the period, and thus that the failure of the genre to establish any lasting legacy may be understood as an index of the difficulties facing poetic discourse more generally at the time. These works, he suggests, are hampered not only by the challenge of filling the gap left by recently obsolete genres such as the published funeral sermon. They also face the difficulty of articulating poetry’s self-representations as an inspired and nigh-on theologically significant discourse, while avoiding both blasphemy and bathos. Careful attention to the materiality of texts, furthermore, usefully enriches readings of works that resist – at least at first glance – traditional critical methodologies.

The monograph is divided into five chapters, book-ended by an introduction and “post-mortem.” The opening chapter sets out the wider religious contexts in which the poems under discussion were composed, detailing the cultural changes wrought by the opening up of the “market” in religious belief in the decades following the Glorious Revolution. Chapter two focuses more particularly on the impact of these changes on the poetic “condition” of the mid eighteenth century, and introduces the three graveyard poems which form the focus of the remaining three chapters: Robert Blair’s The Grave, Edward Young’s Night Thoughts and Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Church-yard.

The main strength of Graveyard Poetry is its use of detailed analysis of a wide-ranging set of primary sources to make sense of the popularity and influence of poems that were from the outset vulnerable to criticism, and have never quite made it into the literary canon. As such, the study will be of interest to literature, book and print historians as well as undergraduates reading in these fields. Perhaps its only weakness is that the potential of demonstrating the aesthetic principles and value of three major mid-century poems is ultimately eclipsed by the admittedly much-needed task of situating them in relation to the devotional practices and print markets of mid-eighteenth-century England.

Katarina Stenke
University of Cambridge