1714 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

A Night-Piece on Death.

Poems on Several Occasions. Written by Dr. Thomas Parnell, late Arch-Deacon of Clogher: and published by Mr. Pope.

Rev. Thomas Parnell


An early example of eighteenth-century graveyard verse, Thomas Parnell's very influential poem was posthumously published by Alexander Pope in 1722. The octosyllabic couplets recall Milton's Il Penseroso while the description of the tombs appears to have suggested to Thomas Gray the basis for his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (to which this poem is often compared).

Compare Aaron Hill's account of being haunted by the Maleger passage in the Faerie Queene: "There is, in his Works, an Image of DEATH so dreadfully drawn, and painted in such glowing Colours, that (having got it by Heart, when I was a Boy) it made so lively an Impression on me, that I never fail'd for a long time after, to see it, at my Bed's Foot as soon as the Candle was carried out of the Room — and met it, in every Churchyard, I pass'd over, after Sunset" The Plain Dealer No. 91 (1 February 1725) verso.

Oliver Goldsmith: "The great fault of this piece, written by Dr. Parnell, is, that it is in eight syllable lines, very improper for the solemnity of the subject; otherwise, the poem is natural, and the reflections just" Beauties of English Poesy (1767) 2:1.

Oliver Goldsmith: "The Night Piece on Death deserves every praise, and I should suppose, with very little amendment, might be made to surpass all those night pieces and church-yard scenes that have since appeared" Life of Parnell (1770) in Works, ed. Cunningham (1854) 4:143-44.

Samuel Johnson: "The Night-piece on Death is indirectly preferred by Goldsmith to Gray's 'Church-yard' but, in my opinion, Gray has the advantage in dignity, variety, and originality of sentiment" "Life of Parnell" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 2:53.

Edmund Gosse: "more of real inspiration [than in The Hermit] attended the composition of his two remarkable odes, the Night-Piece and the Hymn to Contentment. In these he originated two distinct streams of poetical influence, for the former was no less certainly the precursor of the curious funereal school of Young, Blair and Porteus, than the latter was of Collins' exquisite strain of lyrical writing. In both he shows himself the disciple of Milton, and wields the ringing octosyllabic measure as no one had done since Il Penseroso was published" The English Poets, ed Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:134.

William Lyon Phelps: "His Night-Piece on Death is very interesting as the fore-runner of the grave-yard literature of Young, Blair, and the rest, and especially as the prototype of Gray's Elegy" Beginnings of the English Romantic Movement (1893) 26.

Amy Louise Reed: "Once, walking at night, Parnell was struck by the beauty of the dark sky with its stars reflected in the silent water below the churchyard hill, and by the pathos of the human effort to perpetuate distinctions of person or of fortune through differences in the manner of marking graves. This impression he successfully transferred to paper. Once having embarked on meditations concerning death, he continues in quite the seventeenth century manner. Ghosts rise 'wrapp'd in shrouds' and urge him to 'Think, mortal, what it is to die.' The voice of King Death is heard in a 'peal of hollow groans,' but begins to speak against the fear of death, and against the external 'forms of woe' in which grief expresses itself. The true view is 'Death's but a path that must be trod, | If man would ever pass to God'" Background to Gray's Elegy (1924) 123-24.

Eric Partridge: "A Night-Piece on Death, however, definitely fathers the group of poems on lugubrious subjects and constitutes an important early contribution to the new movement. Stanza two offers a body of verse utterly at variance with the literary dicta of the Popean school (yet Pope by editing Parnell adds another confirmation to the theory that even he had affinities with Romanticism) and presents a Romantic landscape and a theme of melancholy gloom.... Parnell deserves as much praise as the Countess of Winchelsea, Ramsay, and Thomson as a pioneer of Romanticism, and criticism has failed to render him his dues on this score" Eighteenth-Century English Romantic Poetry (1924) 152-53.



By the blue Tapers trembling Light,
No more I waste the wakeful Night,
Intent with endless view to pore
The Schoolmen and the Sages o'er:
Their Books from Wisdom widely stray,
Or point at best the longest Way.
I'll seek a readier Path, and go
Where Wisdom's surely taught below.

How deep yon Azure dies the Sky!
Where Orbs of Gold unnumber'd lye,
While thro' their Ranks in silver pride
The nether Crescent seems to glide.
The slumb'ring Breeze forgets to breathe,
The Lake is smooth and clear beneath,
Where once again the spangled Show
Descends to meet our Eyes below.
The Grounds which on the right aspire,
In dimness from the View retire:
The Left presents a Place of Graves,
Whose Wall the silent Water laves.
That Steeple guides thy doubtful sight
Among the livid gleams of Night.
There pass with melancholy State,
By all the solemn Heaps of Fate,
And think, as softly-sad you tread
Above the venerable Dead,
Time was, like thee they Life possest,
And Time shall be, that thou shalt Rest.

Those Graves, with bending Osier bound,
That nameless heave the crumbled Ground,
Quick to the glancing Thought disclose
Where Toil and Poverty repose.

The flat smooth Stones that bear a Name,
The Chissels slender help to Fame,
(Which e'er our Sett of Friends decay
Their frequent Steps may wear away.)
A middle Race of Mortals own,
Men, half ambitious, all unknown.

The Marble Tombs that rise on high,
Whose Dead in vaulted Arches lye,
Whose Pillars swell with sculptur'd Stones,
Arms, Angels, Epitaphs and Bones,
These (all the poor Remains of State)
Adorn the Rich, or praise the Great;
Who while on Earth in Fame they live,
Are sensless of the Fame they give.

Ha! while I gaze, pale Cynthia fades,
The bursting Earth unveils the Shades!
All slow, and wan, and wrap'd with Shrouds,
They rise in visionary Crouds,
And all with sober Accent cry,
Think, Mortal, what it is to dye.

Now from yon black and fun'ral Yew,
That bathes the Charnel House with Dew,
Methinks I hear a Voice begin;
(Ye Ravens, cease your croaking Din,
Ye tolling Clocks, no Time resound
O'er the long Lake and midnight Ground)
It sends a Peal of hollow Groans,
Thus speaking from among the Bones.

When Men my Scythe and Darts supply,
How great a King of Fears am I!
They view me like the last of Things:
They make, and then they dread, my Stings.
Fools! if you less provok'd your Fears,
No more my Spectre-Form appears.
Death's but a Path that must be trod,
If Man wou'd ever pass to God:
A Port of Calms, a State of Ease
From the rough Rage of swelling Seas.

Why then thy flowing sable Stoles,
Deep pendent Cypress, mourning Poles,
Loose Scarfs to fall athwart thy Weeds,
Long Palls, drawn Herses, cover'd Steeds,
And Plumes of black, that as they tread,
Nod o'er the 'Scutcheons of the Dead?

Nor can the parted Body know,
Nor wants the Soul, these Forms of Woe:
As men who long in Prison dwell,
With Lamps that glimmer round the Cell,
When e'er their suffering Years are run,
Spring forth to greet the glitt'ring Sun:
Such Joy, tho' far transcending Sense,
Have pious Souls at parting hence.
On Earth, and in the Body plac't,
A few, and evil Years, they wast:
But when their Chains are cast aside,
See the glad Scene unfolding wide,
Clap the glad Wing and tow'r away,
And mingle with the Blaze of Day.

[pp. 152-57]