Elizabeth Carter at Midnight: A Feminist Glance at Graveyard Poetry

Timothy Tarkelly

With Graveyard Poetry not being the most popular subject of research in the literary world, feminist criticism is rather difficult to find. A feminist approach to graveyard poetry would consist of “exploring the sociocultural and historical contexts in which writers work (especially women), by examining the form and content of literary texts, and by considering the production, distribution, and reception of literary products” (Eglington). The presence of a patriarchal agenda in Graveyard Poetry should surprise no one. Generally speaking, “Patriarchy is comprised of the ruling men (and sometimes women) in a society and the male-dominated systems they run (Eglington). Being predominantly written by eighteenth-century men, many of whom were clergy, it is hardly surprising that the poets used this opportunity to further their gynophobic tendencies (some more than others), as “literature is an influential discourse, traditionally monopolized by Patriarchy to make society believe in the superiority of men” (Eglington). This type of literary repression can come in many ways, but is often seen in how they characterize men and women, or address ideas of femininity and masculinity. Often times, writers will “deem man rational, strong, protective, and decisive and consider women emotional, irrational, weak, submissive, unstable, unpredictable, fickle, passive, narcissistic, masochistic, and penis-envying” (Eglington). Furthermore, these considerations can extend to the ideas of what is masculine or feminine, or simply favor what is masculine and ignore what is feminine.

            Parnell, Blair, Gray, and Young are all considered to be definitive writers of the genre (“Graveyard Poetry”). Of these men, Blair seems to be the most expressly gynophobic. In “The Grave,” Blair’s use of women, or feminine attributes is always negative. First, he refers to nature as “her” (11). Labelling nature as feminine is not entirely uncommon and it bears no negativity in itself. However, Blair spends the rest of the poem hiding from nature and her many terrors. From the “shrill-tongu’d thrush” (98) to the trees seen as “long lash’d by the rude winds” (47), Blair spends the entire poem at odds with nature. Even the tombstones are cursed with cruel nature’s touch. He describes them as “long flat stones, / (with nettles skirted, and with moss o’ergrown,) / That tell in homely phrase who lie below” (61-62). The tombstones, essentially the defining feature of The Grave — his primary subject — has been invaded and marked by nature and her feminine influence. Later on, he points to “Where the pure limpid stream has slid along / In grateful errors thro’ the under-wood” (98-99), arguing that nature is flawed by design and that she continues to inflict her flaws on the world around him.

Blair’s treatment of the widow, the only actual female he speaks of, is as equally negative. He writes:

The new-made widow too, I’ve sometimes spy’d,

Sad sight! slow moving o’er the prostrate dead:

Listless, she crawls along in doleful black,

Whilst bursts of sorrow gush from either eye,

Fast-falling down her now untasted cheek.

Prone on the lowly grave of the dear man

She drops; whilst busy-meddling memory,

In barbarous succession, musters up

The past endearments of their softer hours,

Tenacious of its theme. Still, still she thinks

She sees him, and indulging the fond thought,

Clings yet more closely to senseless turf,

Nor heeds the passenger who looks that way. (72-84)

While erratic behavior in times of great loss is not unreasonable, Blair does not just describe grief. He sees the widow dropping, succumbing to her memories, and even hallucinating, as “she sees him, and indulging the fond thought, / Clings yet more closely to senseless turf, / Nor heeds the passenger who looks that way” (82-84). Her mind is so far gone as she is supposedly senseless, that she does not even engage with the real people around her. The widow is in her own world. She is crying, or “gushing” uncontrollably. Her movement is described as “listless,” a slow, unmotivated attribute often given to those suffering from depression.

Once again, if Blair had merely depicted a woman in extreme pain, there would be less grounds for arguments regarding his sexism. However, he points out that this is a scene he encounters before, or has “sometimes spy’d.” All of his encounters with these grieving women have played out the same: a woman is sad, she cannot control herself, moves as if she is depressed, and hallucinates. This holds with Eglington’s image of the patriarchal writer who “asserts that women are sentimental, irrational, and timid, whereas men are analytic, rational, and brave.” This limited and obviously insulting picture, is used to describe all of the widows he has encountered, suggesting that all women, once faced with grief, are shallow and will act the same way.

Meanwhile, there are no grievers who are men. He does not tell of men rolling in the dirt above their loved one’s graves, or giving into indulgent fantasies. It is difficult to believe that a man who has frequented graveyards enough to have seen widows engaging in this behavior more than once has not encountered a man who has lost a wife, or anyone else for that matter. Irrational grieving, in Blair’s poem, is reserved only for women.

In Night Thoughts, Young also makes use of personification, bringing ideas to life in the form of women. Just like Blair, Young sees nature as feminine, saying that as night enters, “Nature made a pause; / An awful pause! prophetic of her end” (23-25). It should be pointed out that not only is nature feminine, but she is weak and is thus “defeated.” He also shows “Silence and Darkness! solemn sisters! twins / From ancient night” (72) They also “nurse the tender thought/ To reason, and on reason build resolve” (29-30). Young thinks that reason only comes when all is silent, and perhaps even dark. These humanized versions of quiet and dark are unfortunately cast as women, which could indicate his view of an ideal woman, one that is silent and allows his mind to build reason and resolve.

Gray’s gynophobia is a little more subtle and essentially consists of a worldview that does not have women in it. In “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, upon entering the graveyard, Gray laments the unfair treatment of the poor:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,

Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;

Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile

The short and simple annals of the poor. (29-32)

It is ironic that in this bout of open-minded consideration for those less fortunate, he pays no attention to women. Misogyny, it seems, permeates class-based borders. Someone who is so sensitive might have noticed that even women who come from wealthy upbringings are also doomed to a life of “homely joys,” no ambitions, and a life that is most likely “short and simple.” It is more likely that his concern is not genuine and that “the poet meditates, not on the actuality of rural life, but on the implications of it” (Hart 165). He is aware that this suffering exists, but is not ready, or able to do anything about it. Avoiding the parallels to modern society, this type of privileged criticism is all too common among Gray’s contemporaries. During the eighteenth century “England was on the verge of unprecedented prosperity and world power. Yet, the pervasive melancholy, sweet or not so sweet, is a cultural fact” (162). This feeling of melancholy, lending itself to the privileged crying over, but not helping, the poor is common, as Gray’s “indignation at the disdain of the wealthy and powerful for their social inferiors is typical of eighteenth century moral reflection” (McCulloch 14). It is with this disdain that Gray points out the injustice the poor have faced, saying:

Some village Hampden that with dauntless breast

The little tyrant of his field withstood,

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,

Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.


Th’ applause list’ning senates to command

The threats of pain and ruin to despise,

To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,

And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes. (57-64)

At first, this is a convincing appeal to the value of human life. He argues that the only reason one of these men did not become as great as Hampden, Milton, or Cromwell is because they did not have the means, or the opportunity. However, even if they had “list’ning senates to command,” they would only listen to the men. Though Gray speaks of reading “their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,” he forgets that English history is rife with women. Still, he only sees this mistreatment as a problem for men who would be successful if it were not for their station in life. His empathy does nothing for women.

            Though she published her works before Gray and Blair, Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806) threw her flat-crowned hat into the graveyard ring in an attempt to disprove societal views of women and their place, especially where writing and intellectual discourse are concerned, to propagate the Anglican ideals set forth by her patrons, to ensure her access to educational resources, and to avail herself of guilt pertaining to sinful behavior and ruminations, perhaps even involving same-sex attraction. This is evidenced by her handling of various themes within the text and the history surrounding its creation.

            Carter belonged to the Bluestockings, “a group of educated, literary, upper-middle-class women who met to discuss literary and cultural issues; they were widely mocked by the male intellectual establishment” (Voller 33). Carter wrote to confound the public view of women. Carter and the Bluestockings might not be considered feminists by today’s standards as “she advocated female propriety and decorum” and “competence in if not mastery of domestic arts, and support of dominant mainstream ideologies” (34). However, without this adherence to societal norms, she would have never been given the resources from which she is able to lean, or the platform from which she is able to speak.

            Her access to education is largely the product of beneficial relationships with Anglican clergy. Particularly when it came to the resources and training needed to translate ancient texts, she relied on these men, especially Rev. Thomas Secker (Staves 93). This arrangement “between these Church of England clergy and these Bluestocking writers was one of mutual promotion, mutual patronage. On the one hand, the clergy assisted the women and promoted their work; on the others, the women praised the clergy and studied and promoted their work, including their books” (Staves 94). Without maintaining this arrangement, and promoting an agreeable ideology in their works, it is likely that they would have never been published, or even had the means to study the kind of literature they longed to create.

            Aside from the desire to promote their own work, “Church of England clergy assisted Bluestocking writers because they [the clergy] were charitable, because they saw ways that these women could assist in pastoral efforts, and because they wanted to offer models of Anglican female piety and learning that were worthy of imitation and that would enhance the reputation of the Anglican Church” (Staves 94). Carter, for the most part, adheres to this image of an educated, but pious, English woman that could be modeled by the aristocracy. However, she also wrote to confound widely held generalizations. With her “Ode to Melancholy” and “Thoughts at Midnight,” Carter threw her flat-crowned hat into the graveyard ring in an attempt to disprove societal views of women and their place, especially where writing and intellectual discourse are concerned, and to avail herself of guilt pertaining to sinful behavior and ruminations, perhaps even involving same-sex attraction. This is evidenced by her handling of various themes within the text and the history surrounding its creation.

            While allegedly deserving of the label, “ideal woman,” Carter never married, citing that she “looked upon having a sweetheart with as much horror as if it had been one of the seven deadly sins” (Lanser 272). Instead, she devoted her life to studying literature, theology, and classical languages. Her friend and supporter, Samuel Johnson speaks to her dual roles as academic and domestic, saying:

A man is in general pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks in Greek. My old friend, Mrs. Carter, could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus from the Greek, and work a handkerchief as well as compose a poem. (Voller 34)

It is unfortunate that in the eyes of a man as well-respected as Johnson, who even sees Carter as a kind of peer, she had to be able to master both the kitchen as well as the library to be seen as worthy. While she “is remembered more for her poems than her handkerchiefs, and her translations more than her puddings” (Voller 34), if it weren’t for her success in both areas, the annals of literature would have noted neither.

            With a proper feminist approach to Carter’s writing, one that can “tend towards a biographical approach to the text with its focus on the author and her interactions with patriarchy” (Eglington), an activist edge becomes clear. “Ode to Melancholy” opens with an epigraph from Ajax by Sophocles: “Alas! Shades of night, my day, / O darkness, light to me, / Take, oh take me away to dwell with you / Take me away” (Carter 35). This opening, while obviously setting the correct, dark tone that one would typically find in a graveyard poem, also establishes herself as an academic, Augustan poet. That epigraph was actually translated from the original Greek by Carter herself.

            While the epigraph is romanticizing the night, calling the darkness, “light to me,” and establishing Carter’s academic credentials, it is also worth noting the source itself. Ajax is a play about a man who, after succumbing to jealous rage, is made “insane” by the gods, and is plagued by hallucinations and extreme suicidal ideations (Ajax). If this “insanity” had existed in Blair’s poetry, it would have most assuredly been assigned to a woman.

            Her poem opens in typical, graveyard fashion. Parnell, one of the aforementioned definitive graveyard poets and Carter’s predecessor, uses a similar introduction in A Night Piece on Death, where the poet finds himself in a “wakeful night” (2) and longed for “Where wisdom’s surely taught” (8). In Carter’s opening stanza, she writes that melancholy was the “Companion of my lonely hour” (2) and asked it to “indulge my pensive mind” (6).  While these openings introduce their foray into the graveyard in similar ways, Carter’s gives a nuanced view of the female intellect. Where most Patriarchal writers would view a woman as unintelligent, here she is on the same level as Parnell. Her mind is pensive and open to whatever new ideas melancholy might bring her way.

The two poems differ once the poets actually enter the graveyard. Parnell describes his entry, saying:

There pass with melancholy state,

By all the solemn heaps of fate,

And think, as softly-sad you tread

Above the venerable dead. (22-25)

In his melancholy, he goes into the graveyard where he walks above the dead. Carter’s journey is presented as much more grim. “Here,” she says, “cold to Pleasure’s tempting forms, / Consociate with my sister-worms, / And mingle with the dead” (16-18). While Parnell walks above, Carter “mingles with.” Clearly, her view of late nights in which one forfeits their clean thoughts to wild ruminations, is viewed with much more disdain than Parnell.

            This distaste for late night thoughts, could come, as Lanser argues, from a personal place of guilt, either pertaining to either “her relationships with specific women, or “a more diffuse same-sex desire and perhaps modest transgressions of gender as well” (267). Letters sent between the Bluestocking women contain references to odd, shared secrets and fantasies. While they are not illicitly about sex, they are more than questionable. She writes letters to her dear friend, Miss Talbot, in which she haunts her, and pores over “nocturnal fantasies,” using “otherworldy though more secular, indeed ghostly, language to imagine herself with Talbot” (269). While Carter’s avoidance of marriage and academic pursuits might stand out as feminist, the Bluestocking way was still markedly conservative. If Carter and her friends were hiding an underlying sapphism, their religious beliefs and societal conditions would make acting upon it an impossibility. Lanser’s view suggests that “Bluestocking feminism was also a project of constraint; one can guess that it wasn’t easy being blue” (Lanser 258). If these desires were real, and they were a source of guilt that manifested itself every night, it would explain the harsh view Carter has towards the night. In “Thoughts at Midnight,” Carter describes her anguish:

But ah! How oft my lawless passions rove,

And break those awful precepts I approve!

Pursue the fatal impulse I abhor,

And violate the virtue I adore! (17-20)

Here, Carter describes the night as a war between her virtue, as a Christian, and her “lawless passions.” Without the knowledge of the Bluestockings and their repressed sexual desires, this might seem overly dramatic. However, this war is clearly real and personal.

            Carter addresses the feminine in both poems. In “Ode to Melancholy,” she refers to the worms, fiendishly mingling with the dead as “sister.” This could be a commentary on her own thoughts at these late hours, or could simply be the same as saying “friend,” since they were about similar tasks.

Her use of feminine language in “Thoughts At midnight” is much more powerful. As midnight approaches, “calm reflection soothes the pensive soul / While Reason undisturb’d asserts her sway” (2-3). Reason, the wisdom that Parnell sought, and that Gray felt would come in silence and darkness, is here described as inherently female. The goal of these poets, in Carter’s mind, is feminine.

Whether the writers intended to or not, Graveyard Poetry is suffused with misogyny. While hers is only one of many other female contributions to the Graveyard School, Carter brings in a feminine point of view. Unfortunately, it is one of suffering, possibly due to the oppression and sexual repression she dealt with throughout her life.



Timothy Tarkelly’s poetry has been featured by Cauldron Anthology, Cadaverous Magazine, GNU, Paragon Journal, and others. He was recently named an honorable mention for the Golden Fedora Poetry Prize by Noir Nation Magazine. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from National University, and when he is not writing he works for a non-profit that serves survivors of domestic and sexual violence in Western Kansas.



Works Cited

 “Ajax.” The Oxford Dictionary of plays, 2005.

Blair, Robert. “The Grave.” The Graveyard School: An Anthology, by Jack G. Voller. First Valancourt Books, 2015, pp. 45-69.

Carter, Elizabeth. “Ode To Melancholy.” The Graveyard School: An Anthology, by Jack G. Voller. First Valancourt Books, 2015, pp. 35-37.

Carter, Elizabeth. “Thoughts at Midnight!” The Graveyard School: An Anthology, by Jack G. Voller. First Valancourt Books, 2015, pp. 38-39.

Eglington, Yonge. Feminist Literary Theory: An Introductory Handbook. Kindle, ed., Textual Matters, 2015.

“Graveyard Poetry.” New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1993.

Gray, Thomas. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The Graveyard School: An Anthology, by Jack G. Voller. First Valancourt Books, 2015, pp. 144-149.

Hart, Jeffrey. “Thomas Gray’s Desperate Pastoral.” Modern Age, vol. 44, no. 2, 2002, pp. 162-168.

Lanser, Susan S. “Bluestocking Sapphism and the Economies of Desire.” Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 65, no. ½, 2002, pp. 257-275.

McCulloch, Andrew. “‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’: Andrew McCulloch examines one of Thomas Gray’s poems, finding in its form and content tensions between the Augustan and Romantic eras.” The English Review, vol. 18, no. 3, 2008, pp. 13-17.

Parnell, Thomas. “A Night-Piece on Death.” The Graveyard School: An Anthology, by Jack G. Voller. First Valancourt Books, 2015, pp. 21-24.

Staves, Susan. “Church of England Clergy and Women Writers.” The Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 65, 2002, pp. 81-103.

Voller, Jack G., Editor. The Graveyard School: An Anthology. First Valancourt Books, 2015.

Young, Edward. “Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and immortality.” The Graveyard School: An

Anthology, by Jack G. Voller. First Valancourt Books, 2015, pp. 69-90.