Monday, 18 January 2016

'A Night-Piece on Death' - Thomas Parnell

‘How deep yon azure dyes the sky,
Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie,
While through 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.’
(lines 9-16)
A Night-Piece on Death
Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)
(published 1722)
Surely the eighteenth century was the great age for poetic descriptions of landscape: in just a few lines Thomas Parnell captures his reader and takes them out by the hand to wander through a cool, still night.  This is not a long poem, but it has a lot to say.  It also has a lot of really splendid images: when he begins by describing ‘the blue taper’s trembling light’ (line 1), for example, we can instantly see inside his cosy little study, and see the frail quiver of the candle flame.  Parnell writes that ‘No more I waste the wakeful night’ (line 2), and he doesn’t waste words either. 
The poem starts off late at night in a study; the poet has been reading the works of ‘The schoolmen and the sages’ (line 4), trying to find the path to wisdom.  But ‘at best’, he decides, such books can only ‘point […] the longest way’ (line 6).  The real way to understand the world here ‘below’ the heavens, is to go outside and experience it first hand: ‘How deep yon azure dyes the sky, / Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie’ (lines 9-10).  Beautiful, isn’t it?
Thomas Parnell.  Image courtesy of
Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Then as he walks he sees ‘a place of graves’ (line 19), and gently the poem grows more solemn.  Another subtle shift here is that the poem suddenly begins to address the reader (or, to use the jargon, talking in the second person):
‘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 possessed,
And time shall be, that thou shalt rest.”’
(lines 23-28)
Ok, so it sounds a little gloomy perhaps; but it’s also a fair point.  It’s also interesting that Parnell is now addressing his reader directly.  Somewhat paradoxically, he has now become like the ‘schoolmen and sages’ whose books he had been reading, as he now begins to write about the knowledge and wisdom he has gained through his midnight ramblings.  (Needless to say, late-night wanderings around graveyards are NOT recommended for today’s readers!)
To Parnell, the graves are a symbol of labour at rest.  Once again his delightful turn of phrase produces such poignant images as ‘The flat smooth stones that bear a name, / The chisel’s slender help to fame’ (lines 33-34).  As is frequently the case with graveyard poetry in the eighteenth-century, the emphasis is firmly upon death as a social leveller – in this graveyard are the poor, the ‘middle race of mortals’, and those who ‘in vaulted arches lie’ (lines 37 & .  40). The rich and great might try to preserve their fame after death through elaborate tombs, but as Parnell neatly notes they are those ‘Who, while on earth in fame they live, / Are senseless of the fame they give’ (lines 45-6).  The ‘they’ in the second line here refers to the ‘Arms, angels, epitaphs and bones’ (line 43) that adorn the graves of the rich.  In other words, while alive, these people paid little or no attention to the fame of their ancestors, proclaimed in the same manner in which they themselves have since attempted to proclaim theirs.  It’s a bit of a sweeping swipe at the aristocracy, but all the same rather cleverly put.
Then things get a bit more spooky, as he imagines the ghosts rising up from their graves as ‘pale Cynthia fades’ (line 47); Cynthia here refers to the moon, via Greek mythology.  The poet hears ‘a voice begin’ (line 55), and the lines between imagination and the supernatural become delightfully blurred.  The voice is that of Death, the ‘King of Fears’ (line 62), but the words he speaks are rather less terrifying than might be expected.  According to this voice, ‘Death’s but a path that must be trod, / If man would ever pass to God’ (lines 67-8).  Mocking the traditional eighteenth-century funeral fare of ‘flowing sable stoles, / Deep pendant cypress, mourning poles’ (lines 71-2) and so on, the voice then proceeds to paint a rather cheery picture of death that draws upon Christian religious belief in rebirth and resurrection.  Accordingly, the voice suggests that life is like a long prison sentence from which worthy souls may ‘Spring forth to greet the glitt’ring sun’ after death, and ultimately ‘mingle with the blaze of day’ (lines 82 & 90).  Certainly a very upbeat ending for a poem that is, essentially, all about death!
Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)
 Thomas Parnell was ordained as a deacon in 1700, and installed as a minor canon of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin in 1704, so perhaps it is not surprising that his poem takes religious belief as its centrepoint.  At St Patrick’s, Parnell met Jonathan Swift, and both men were later members of the informal social grouping known today in academic circles as the Scriblerus Club.  Although this grouping included some of the most acclaimed literary figures of the early eighteenth-century (such as Alexander Pope and John Gay), Parnell’s poetry was not published until 1722, four years after his death.
If you want to find out more about Thomas Parnell:
(Encyclopaedia Britannica – a bit like Wikipedia, but sounds more intellectual!)
You can find this poem:
(Can’t wait to start reading?  Know how you feel… Check out this free copy online at the Poetry Foundation!)
(English Poetry 1579-1830: a fascinating database of poetry with a healthy smattering of notes and commentary.  Compiled by David Hill Radcliffe, Virginia Tech.  Great stuff!!)
David Fairer & Christine Gerrard (eds), Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology 3rd ed. (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015)  pp. 66-67.
(Want a copy you can hold in your hand?  This anthology has this poem and loads more inside! It’s often used as a student text, so check for second-hand copies on eBay or similar before purchasing if you’re shopping on a budget!)
Information for this blogpost came from the following source:
Bryan Coleborne, ‘Parnell, Thomas (1679-1718), poet and essayist’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. <> [accessed 18 Jan 2016]
(If you are fortunate enough to have a subscription to this database, or to study at an institution that does, do have a read: it’s a fascinating little article!)

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