Imagery and symbolism in The Exequy


As T.S. Eliot noted, what makes The Exequy such a great poem, and such a good example of metaphysical poetry, is the way in which simile and idea become one. The whole poem is conducted in images, and that is how King finds his consolation. Partly this is because traditionally the idea of death is often wrapped up in figurative language, especially euphemism. Even the New Testament speaks of ‘falling asleep' rather than dying, but that is partly because of the Christian belief that believers will ‘awake' after death, as from sleep. Donne uses this dramatically in his sonnet Death, be not Proud.

Death the executor

Judgement DayHowever the use of imagery here goes beyond traditional usage. King's images are fresh and original, not traditional and conventional. Death is likened to an exile (l.42), except it is not. It is ‘that hollow Vale' (l.90). It is to be an executor, who has to write down all she left ‘into the Dooms-day book' (l.70). Here King marries an original personification with traditional biblical language that talks of Judgement day (Doomsday) as the time for opening the account book of our lives (Revelation 20:12). Far from this being threatening, he it is who threatens death to keep a true account, so confident is he of her saintliness (l.1).

Book imagery

Book imagery runs throughout. She is seen as ‘the book/ The library whereone I look' (ll.9-10). She is also his sun, and ‘like a fled Star' (l.33), using astronomical imagery. More importantly she is ‘My Little World' (l.55), using the microcosmic imagery so favoured by Donne.

Military images

Other images abound: life as a journey, or more exactly a voyage, since he uses sailing images (ll.99-104) in an extended metaphor. This is followed by military images: she is ‘the Vann', that is, the vanguard, and she has already won her victory over death, picking up the battle image from the Bible: ‘O death where is thy victory?' is the question asked there (1 Corinthians 15:55). The dramatic little image of his pulse ‘like a soft Drum' beats time, but it is a muffled battle drum to keep him marching forward at a steady pace.

Investigating The Exequy
  • Study King's imagery in The Exequy
    • What images seem particularly memorable to you?
    • Would you call the images conceits?
    • How does he find consolation through the images he chooses?
    • Is there a progression of images, or do they seem to occur randomly?
  • What euphemisms for death and dying can you think of?
    • Why might they be helpful?
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