The poem takes the form of a lament for the speaker’s dead wife. We imagine ‘Exequy’ to be a variation on the word ‘Eulogy’ , and the style of the poem very much fits this genre. The iambic tetrameter couplet lines give a fast pace, while lots of enjambement and long sentances give a sense of almost hysterical grief, as if emotion is gushing out of the speaker just as the sense is bursting out of the formal structure. Irregular stanza lengths add to this effect, generally acting as verse-paragraphs with other occasional effects.
The poem attempts to capture a sense of grief through a number of images and conceits. The first stanza portrays the mourning speaker as a kind of automaton or else a low form of animal life – ‘almost blind’, he does not ‘live’ but instead ‘languishes out’. Instead of thinking or percieving he simply ‘computes’. This suggests something mechanical, with the paradox that unlike a machine or insect, the speaker’s inability to feel comes not from a lack of emotion but rather an overwhelmed and stunned emotional faculty.
Moving on from an image of blindness, the poet develops a conceit whereby the dead lover is represented by the light of ‘day’ (now overcast), and by association, the sun. In an image reminiscent of Donne’s Valediction Forbidding Mourning and The Ecstasy, the speaker now imagines himself as another celestial body, eclipsed from his ‘sun’ by the ‘earth’, a representation of mortality that has cut the lovers off from one another. Line 37 at the end of the stanza draws on the idea that strange astronomical events were seen as portents for misfortune or death, returning us in an elegant circlee to the speaker’s own bereavement.
The transience of life and mortality are explores in striking terms where the speaker addresses the earth that has taken his lover, ‘meantime thou hast her, earth’. His suggestion that his bereavement might do ‘much good’ to the earth puts us in mind of a medicine or form of nourishment – as if her death, with an implicit comparison to Christ, has the power to redeem a fallen earth. The extreme physicality implyed in this image – that of nutrients from the dead body replenishing the earth – is striking in its willingness to break the normal boundaries of love poetry. This willingness to confront mortality is noticable throughout the poem, from the blunt opening line, ‘my dead saint’, to an implicit contemplation of suicide,
‘And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed’.
This forms part of a second extended conceit, that of a pilgrim’s journey where the lover waits just out of sight, ‘beyond the vale’. This puts us in mind of the religious poetry of Herbert and Vaughen. The final image here, of the speaker’s pulse being a marching drum towards death, continues the incredibly visceral language used in the poem, whose overall effect is to remind us that death is never far away.
Consequently, another significant strand of the poem’s discourse is on religion. The dead lover is first characterized as a ‘saint’, with a ‘shrine’. This image draws on Catholic tradition to suggest an object worthy of veneration, and reflects the speaker’s assertion that the wife was near-perfect – saints allowing direct discourse with God. However, the ‘pligrim’ metephor owes more to the Protestant tradition of John Bunyan. This juxtaposition might suggest an underlying anxiety about the nature of God, and therefore the likelihood of salvation for the lover. In the light of this the poem might be seen as a plea to God on behalf of the dead woman, ending on an emphatic wish to be reunited with her in heaven.