Something rather odd happens three quarters of the way through Henry King’s poem ‘Exequy on his Wife’. It starts off with the usual working out of elaborate conceits that is the bane of so much metaphysical poetry – King was a contemporary and friend of John Donne – and then suddenly he seems to forget all about being a clever poet and simply speaks from the heart as a real husband full of grief and desire for a beloved spouse. It doesn’t last – we are soon back in a contrivance of tides and compasses and vanguards – but those few lines of art without artifice that have come down to us across the centuries are as powerful an elegy for conjugal love as any I know.
Sleep on, my Love, in thy cold bed
Never to be disquieted!
My last good-night! Thou wilt not wake
Till I thy fate shall overtake:
Till age, or grief, or sickness must
Marry my body to that dust
It so much loves; and fill the room
My heart keeps empty in thy tomb.
Stay for me there: I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay:
I am already on the way,
And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed.