Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

Explication of "The Grave"

James Montgomery’s “The Grave” tells the story of an unnamed speaker who is visited by The Grave, a spirit that convinces the reader to continue to live. Throughout this poem, Montgomery keeps a steady rhyming pattern to show the speaker’s journey from wanting to die to longing for and celebrating life. The journey is nuanced, but consistently moves forward with each discovery of a reason to live, highlighted by the ABAB CDCD etc. rhyme scheme. The speaker is contemplating how the only peace and comfort he will find is when he “sweetly sleeps low in the ground,” (3). The speaker has been tortured in life, comparing himself to a “weary pilgrim” because “misery stole [me] at my birth,” (2,13). The speaker feels that life has only caused him anguish. Because of all the pain he has had, he longs to die, to be united with “[my] mother earth,” finally becoming one with the Earth and being at peace (15). However, in the midst of this contemplation, the speaker hears a voice that says “I am the Grave,” though the exact source from whence the voice is coming is not identified (24).  This shift to the voice of the grave is highlighted not only by the stark introduction, but the shift in sound. The speaker uses a mix of aspirated semivowels such as “repose” and “rose” in stanza 2 and liquid semivowels such as “dreamful” and “toil” in stanza 3. However, each of these sounds has a lighter sound and have a somber feel to it, highlighting the speaker’s distress. When the Grave starts to speak, the sounds shift to powerful and confident, such as “chide” and “torn” used in stanza 7 and 8 respectively. This highlights the significance of the Grave’s message and the power of it. Each powerful word contrasts with the softer way that the Grave presents his message to the speaker, asserting how important it is to believe the things being said. The contrast between the Grave and the speaker is also highlighted by the structure of the poem, as it goes from iambic tetrameter to iambic dimeter, which puts emphasize on the end of the line and the focus on the end of each stanza.

The message of “The Grave”  is divided into four sections. Each section addresses some of the plights of living that individuals experience: unhappiness, loss, displacement, and betrayal. With each plight, the Grave finds a way to give the speaker a reason to live despite what has happened. Living is the prominent message of the Grave, as each time the word “live” is used, it is underlined to show its importance. Section one focuses on unhappiness, stating that the speaker is “a wretch, ” plagued by hopelessness and anger caused by sin (29). The speaker has suffered greatly because of his unhappiness, but the Grave ensures the speaker that if he repents he will find “mercy,” a sense of happiness from relief of sin (47). The second section focuses on loss, as the speaker is described as a “mourner,” (49). However, the Grave assures the speaker that he will “cherish still the sweet remembrance of the past” and experience the delights of life once more (53-54). The third section focuses on displacement, the feeling of not knowing who one is or where one belongs. The speaker feels like a “wanderer” and a “ship wrecked sufferer,” unable to find solace (57-59). These are both examples of the strong language that the Grave uses to describe the speaker’s feelings. However, the Grave contradicts him and states that the speaker will “reach a sheltering port, a quiet home” to settle down and receive that sense of belonging (63-64). This section is highlighted as important due to the break in rhyme scheme in stanza 15 from true rhyme to slant rhyme. This is because the wanderer follows a path of being lost, represented by true rhyme, that breaks when he is found, entering new territory.  

The fourth section talks about betrayal by a friend, as the speaker’s former friend became a “deadly foe,” (66). The Grave assures the speaker that the friendship was “sordid dross” that the speaker mistook for true friendship (75). The speaker never had a true friend so he still has the hope of finding one. There is also slant rhyme in stanza 18, highlighting the continued change in the speaker’s newfound idea of friendship, as the word “found” in the first line of the stanza is the prominent rhyme and masks the impact of the word “wound.” The final section is also about betrayal but from the perspective of a lover. The speaker had fallen in love with a woman who hit him with “Love’s insidious dart” and left him broken hearted (82). The Grave spends the longest time on this section discussing all the ways that the speaker will find “a nobler flame,” that will be the truest form of love (85).  This thought of love is powerful enough to help the speaker move forward in life. In this section, there is also a change to slant rhyme in stanza 20 to highlight the speaker being able to see what true love is about. The speaker learns that he had been given less than what he deserved and recognizes what true love looks like. The Grave concludes this section by saying that God will not give the speaker anything unbearable, that he gives “wounds to heal” (96). This circles back to the idea that life is full of suffering, but the suffering will end and the speaker will be able to move past it. The Grave asserts the idea that life is worth living because of the suffering, as it will bring about joy and healing through new experiences.  The Grave bids the speaker “pursue thy fight”; this is his final cry to the reader to continue to move forward with his life despite the suffering and challenges, ending on a mute that both stops his voice and ends on a strong sound (104).

In the final three stanzas, the voice shifts back to that of the first speaker, as shown through the soft endings of the sentences.  With his new perspective, he develops a more optimistic and confident approach to life. Though the lighter sounds still remain, the speaker starts to use more powerful words to end the lines, such as “divine” and “sire,”  in stanzas 28 and 29 respectively. This contrasts with the beginning of the poem, where the speaker was always ending each sentence with a soft, somber sound. The first stanza is repeated again, to emphasize how he is beginning in the same place as he did earlier. The repetition shows how the speaker’s journey can now take a different path than what was written earlier, as he chooses to live instead of dying  The second-to-last stanza changes to talk about the soul being a “star of day,” the light of life living within his own being (112). The speaker feels that the soul is more powerful and everlasting than even the sun, which he calls “just a spark of fire, a transient meteor in the sky,” (113-114). The words “fire” and “transient” are an example of showing the new lighter, joyful feel through the use of liquid semivowels. As he concludes the poem, the speaker finds new hope in the immortality of the soul. This is emphasized by the underlining of the phrase “shall never die,” the only full phrase underlined by Virginia Lucas in her transcription of the poem (115-116). This celebrates both the good that comes of life and the good that will come in the afterlife, when the speaker will be reunited with loved ones and with God. As shown through the discussion of sin, the soul, God, and life after death, “The Grave” has a strong religious connotation that God will forgive and give on solace in their life, if they follow his will and sin no more.