Synopsis of The Exequy

An exequy is a Latin term for funeral rites. So here it becomes a poem written instead of - or as - a rite, in this case for the poet's young wife's burial. There are other examples of such poems: Thomas Stanley, a contemporary of King, wrote The Exequies, but as a love poem using the image of dying for love, as Donne does in Twicknam Garden. Sadly, King's poem is the real thing, just as Donne's sonnet Since She Whom I Lov'd.

A profound exploration of grief

The wider generic name for poems written to and about dead people is Elegy. However, this genre can be subdivided. King himself calls the poem a dirge and a ‘complaint' (l.2). In fact, it is one of the most profound explorations of grief in English poetry. It shows that whilst major poets can quite easily write minor poems, so minor poets, given the emotional pressure, can write major poems. Carew's elegy on Donne is another example. Of King's poem, T.S. Eliot, in a major essay on the Metaphysical poets, wrote:

In one of the finest poems of the age (a poem which could not
have been written in any other age) The Exequy of Bishop King, the
extended comparison is used with perfect success: the idea and the simile become one.

At the time of writing this poem King, who lived from 1592 to 1669, was a Church of England priest and he later became Bishop of Chichester. He was also a poet, though a fairly conventional one.

Investigating The Exequy
  • Compare King's Exequy with Donne's sonnet about his young wife's death, Since She Whom I Lov'd
    • What similarities and differences do you notice?
  • Read the Victorian poet Robert Browning's poem Prospice. This is about his hope of meeting his newly dead wife again in heaven.
    • Again, compare it with King's Exequy
  • Memorial services often include words written especially about the person who has died.
    • How helpful might this be?
    • What makes people want to write on a loved one's death?
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