‘A Prison is in all things like a Grave’
Elegies on Arbella Stuart, Sir Thomas Overbury, and Sir Walter Ralegh
in The daring muse of the early Stuart funeral elegy
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The deaths of three prominent political prisoners in the 1610s (Lady Arbella Stuart, Sir Thomas Overbury, and Sir Walter Ralegh) prompted an outpouring of funeral elegies. In these poems, the conventions of the genre confront the exceptional circumstances of death. The normal elegiac process is disrupted and poets struggle to lament publicly the deaths of perceived threats to the state. This chapter considers how elegists embraced the opportunity to reflect upon the political situation that led to imprisonment or execution. While often acknowledging the dead as guilty of ambition or indiscretion, but rarely of the treason which was the actual grounds for imprisonment or death, these poems obliquely point to the culpability of others, most often the King or his councillors and favourites. These elegies also reflect the self-consciousness of a tradition of Tower imprisonment and the poetry emerging from it that reaches back to the execution of the Earl of Essex in 1601. Overall, the funeral elegies produced in response to these deaths of the mid- to late 1610s achieved a richness of self-reflection and public probing of the political situation generally unseen in previous poems.

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