Language and tone in The Exequy

Literal language

Although much of the language is dictated by the imagery, some of the most striking language is very literal. Take for example the lines:

Sleep on my Love in thy cold bed
Never to be disquieted!
My last good night! Thou wilt not wake ...

We can argue that ‘bed' and ‘wake' are metaphors for death, but the image of sleep for death is so usual, so conventional that it has lost its metaphorical force. To us, it becomes almost literal, especially in Christian terms. It is the sheer simplicity that is the effective force here, not the figurativeness of the lines. If we compare this to the language of Donne's A Nocturnall upon St Lucies Day we an see how simple language can be as effective a way of expressing grief as complex language. The monosyllables break the regular rhythm, so that ‘cold', ‘bed' and ‘Nev-' are all stressed, as are ‘last', ‘good' and ‘night'.

Use of monosyllables

In fact, the proportion of monosyllables is very high. In this, the language re-enacts the pared-down quality of life the poet now lives. The rhythm does indeed become the soft drum-beat of his pulse: it echoes throughout the whole poem. It is not so much the beat of time passing as the beat of his grief. It moves towards music.

Moving pathos

The tone evokes a desperately quiet sadness. There is no anger, no loud questioning of God. The pathos is heart-breaking, especially seen in the little asides of ‘Dear' or ‘my Love' or ‘My Little World!' He still needs to speak to her, even though she is ‘asleep'. It is also the control which makes the poem so moving. It is out of the most complex and deep emotions that the simplest and most powerful art so often comes.

Investigating The Exequy
  • Consider the comments on King's simplicity of language
    • Have you noticed anything else about the language?
    • Why is it that the simplest words are often the most moving or the most heartfelt?
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