Living Graves: Solve et Coagula in Robert Galbraith’s forthcoming The Running Grave
by Kurt Schreyer
What might the title of Robert Galbraith’s forthcoming novel The Running Grave tell us about what to expect in the seventh book of the Strike & Ellacott series? Kurt Schreyer, Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, explores how poets and artists have used gravesites as fertile ground for their own creativity. We are mistaken, he argues, when we associate tombs solely with death, and if we consider how they also represent the possibility of rebirth, growth, and change, we might gain a better sense of what is in store for Strike and Robin.
The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave that is her womb.
– Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet
Graves are not dead ends. Quite the opposite: graves have long been associated with artistic creation as well as birth, growth, and change. I’ve been reflecting on Robert Galbraith’s adoption of the phrase “running grave” from Dylan Thomas’s poem for the title of the forthcoming seventh book in the Strike & Ellacott series, and I’d like to share my thoughts and a few prognostications.
Beginning in about the sixteenth century, the word “running” was applied to plants whose shoots are “creeping, climbing, or spreading rapidly” (OED, 8). Indeed, shoots are still called “runners,” as Thomas seems to be explicitly aware, for he speaks of a “Cadaver’s shoot / Of bud of Adam,” which recalls his poem’s title but with a more explicitly botanic image. So a “running grave” is potentially a living grave. Before you dismiss this absurd oxymoron, I would note that, in a similar way, Shakespeare’s contemporaries used the word – “mould” (i.e. “mold”) to describe the decayed remains of the human body and the earth of the grave as well as the fertile organic topsoil of cultivated land or garden (OED, n.1).
The Society of Dead Poets
In The Ink Black Heart a gravesite in Highgate Cemetery is the inspiration for Edie and Josh’s cartoon. In fact, there is a very long literary tradition of viewing graves as starting points and fonts of inspiration. Ovid, Virgil, Statius, and Juvenal all borrowed phrases from Roman grave epitaphs for their poetic creations, most famously the formula “Ille ego sum” or “Ille ego qui” which means “I am he who…” Written on headstones, this inscription effectively reanimated deceased persons and allowed the dead to “speak,” as it were, to their visitors. Ancient poets quickly seized on this powerful means of poetically ventriloquizing dead authors, a practice that continued for centuries, so that by the time of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton the literary authority and prestige of a dead poet was often associated with and symbolized by the site of their internment.
The prefaces to the 1598 and 1602 editions of Chaucer’s Works couple tombs and vegetable growth. First, a portrait of the poet is featured above the tomb monument of his son, Thomas, and surrounded by heraldic coats of arms hanging from vines supported by a trellis. The title pages are ornamented not only with massive columns, plinths, cornices, and scrolls, but also an ancient funerary urn. But these otherwise cold, hard, and lifeless stones are thickly festooned with vines bearing heavy clusters of grapes. Palms, cornucopia, and other vegetative growths sprout wildly and almost uncontainably from the monument surrounding the book’s table of contents, thus lending a rich graphic illustration to the inscription surmounting it in some variants of the edition: “Chaucer: Out of the old fields, as men sayth, / Commeth all this new corn, fro yere to yere: / And out of old books, in good fayth, / Cometh al this new science that men lere.” What is old is new again; it has been dissolved and remade. The 1602 second edition features a skull-and-crossbones at the bottom of the title page yet at the top may be seen fully ripened grape vines growing abundantly across a trellis.
Ben Jonson’s commendatory poem, “To the memory of my beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare” in the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays also associates the author’s book and his tomb:
My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further to make thee a room;
Thou art a monument without a tomb
And art alive still while thy book doth live,
And we have wits to read and praise to give. (19-24)
More than gloomy monuments to time and death, late medieval and early modern tombs are often fertile sites for poetic resurrection and birth. Entombment somehow brought the author to life and into closer proximity. We see the tomb and the womb often associated in Romeo & Juliet and other works of Shakespeare. Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where so many famous British writers are buried and commemorated, remains to this day a popular destination for literary pilgrims.
Epitaphs, funeral oration, elegy, and the imitation of ancient inscriptions were the hallmarks of humanist classical revival both in Britain and on the Continent. And this was by no means restricted to literary figures. The cenotaph monument to the fourteenth-century Italian painter and architect Giotto in Florence Cathedral is a beautifully evocative “speaking epigram” – a first-person, postmortem address from the artist himself which begins:
“I am he through whom painting, dead, returned to life
and whose hand was as sure as it was adept.
What my art lacked was lacking in nature herself.
To no one was it given to paint better or more.”
The power of grave monuments lies partly in the fact that they simultaneously record and resist the passage of time. It was a popular early modern practice to feature a skull or other memento mori on the tomb accompanied by the epitaph – “As you are now, so once was I / As I am now, so shall you be.” In this way, the skull “speaks” to the person holding vigil, and the voice of the grave’s dead occupant fixes the reader in time and space as they ponder their own mortality. Have you ever wondered why so many pre-modern sarcophaguses feature the effigy of the dead person lying within? The sculpted marble, gilded monument, or painted image is a prosthesis of the human body within: it aims to refute the scandal of corruption and the shame of anonymity by preserving the recognizable features of the tomb’s occupant in spite of inevitable decay.
La Petite Mort
It sounds strange, but graves have long inspired – and indeed been the means of instigating – sexual desire and seduction (even apart from necrophilia). In the carpe diem (“seize the day”) tradition begun by the Roman poet Horace, the speaker of the poem will remind the reader, usually imagined to be a woman, that because they are mortal and life is transitory, they should gather rosebuds while they may. Quite often this is a subterfuge for seduction, a naked bid for sex, as is clear in the opening lines of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”:
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
Marvell subsequently underscores this theme by vividly describing the decomposition of the body after death:
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Marvell exploits the inevitability of death out of a desire to “sport us while we may.” Love and death are linked together as the carpe diem speaker seductively urges an exchange of Death for “the little death” (la petite mort) of sexual orgasm.
Dylan Thomas’s “The Running Grave” bears many of the features of the poetic carpe diem tradition though they can be difficult to spot through the poem’s surrealist imagery. It yokes together graves, skulls, hearses, bones, and cadavers with an erotics of arousal and seduction. Thomas seemingly makes a veiled allusion to Marvell’s poem (I believe, in fact, that his poem is a response to Marvell) in the fourth stanza:
Chaste and the chaser, man with the cockshut eye,
I, that time’s jacket or the coat of ice
May fail to fasten with a virgin o
In the straight grave
Marvell’s hymenal “quaint honour” (itself containing an off-color wordplay) becomes a “virgin o” coupled with a hugely phallic “tower dome.” But, characteristically, Thomas’s working-class idiom is much more frank about sex. Someone sexually “chaste” becomes a rakish “chaser;” a “boxy shift” seems both a coffin and an undergarment; “maid and head” clearly dallies with the word “maidenhead.” Beyond “love in her gear” there is knocking, hammering, hauling, and driving – in short, more sexually-charged puns than Shakespeare’s sonnets to the Dark Lady. And the repeated use of “up” and “descend” suggests male tumescence and its post-coital aftermath.
Perhaps the most famous poem about the grave is Shakespeare’s sonnet #55 which famously begins:
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
So, till the Judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
The boldness of Shakespeare’s poem lies in its claims that it will monumentalize the beloved better than any grandiose aristocratic tomb. It alone will withstand the ravages of time. But it is equally extraordinary as a conjuration: sonnet 55 celebrates the creation of a poem out of a grave, a dead space. Note that it ends with the beloved’s final resurrection at the Last Judgment – once again, graves imply endings and new beginnings.
Arcadia Meets Yijing
Before turning to The Running Grave, I’d like to draw on one more famous work of art, Nicolas Poussin’s enigmatically titled painting “Et in Arcadia Ego” (1637-38), which literally translates to “Even in Arcadia, there am I.” Arcadia is a Greek word referring to a pastoral utopia, but at the center of this blissful landscape, Poussin has placed a monumental tomb to Daphnis, a mythological shepherd born of a god who was said to have invented pastoral poetry. The painting would therefore seem to be saying something about the relationship of Death to artistic invention, both written and visual. Art historians have long considered the speaker of the “ego,” the “I,” to be either the dead shepherd or Death itself; consequently, the phrase “et in Arcadia ego” is understood to mean, “Even in Utopia there is Death.” Poussin’s painting is a memento mori in much the same way as the tomb inscriptions and carpe diem poems mentioned above.
With its sense of “paradise lost” it may also be grouped with other Renaissance works that lament humanity’s fall from a blissful Golden Age; not only Milton’s epic poem but Shakespeare’s As You Like It and many Italian humanist paintings. But I think that to focus too exclusively on the melancholy of Poussin’s painting is to miss its most profound achievement: for me, Et in Arcadia Ego is fundamentally a bold and hopeful celebration of art as it showcases for the viewer the profound paradox which this essay has been struggling to explain: namely, that we would have no Art if it weren’t for Death. Mortality drives creativity or, in the words of the famous motto of Alchemy, Solve et coagula. This potent maxim which Rowling/Galbraith has adopted as a metaphor for writing means “to dissolve and to coagulate.” To make or reform something, you must first break it down to its essentials. You must get down to what really matters. Before the English verb “to solve” acquired its familiar modern meaning – “to explain, clear up, resolve, answer” – it meant to loosen or to break, and it was cognate with decomposing. Death brings solutions and answers.
In other words, Poussin seems to be responding to other artists in the memento mori tradition by declaring that while mortality and death cannot be denied or avoided, that is not the end of the story. When we use our memory and when art celebrates what we cherish from the past, then art creates anew – even in the face of Death! Obsolescence is not tantamount to supersession: the Past remains Present. What is supposedly dead and gone can become an essential ingredient of growth and change, and therefore of what is new and emerging.
And here East meets West, for the other thing we know about Galbraith’s forthcoming seventh book is that the I Ching will feature prominently. The I Ching, or Yijing, is also known as the “Book of Changes” or the “Oracle of Changes.” According to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Underlying the Yijing philosophy of change is the notion that the cosmos is an organismic process without beginning or end. As a process, the cosmos resembles a great flow in which “all of the parts of the entire cosmos belong to one organic whole” and all the parts “interact as participants in one spontaneously self-generating process” (Tu 1985: 35).
Those who are not familiar with the I Ching yet may recognize the Yin & Yang which symbolizes this cosmology. Experiencing fear and anxiety as they face important decisions in their lives, readers of the I Ching seek guidance from the hexagrams that are formed by casting yarrow stalks or coins. Whichever a diviner chooses, the hexagrams “point to the intricate networks of factors or forces—from near to far away, from simple to complicated, from visible to invisible—that shape movements and changes.” And in this way, a person may come to see and appreciate their own evolution and maturation and to accept novelty and change in order to grow.
Conclusions & Possibilities
Robert Galbraith’s title The Running Grave awakens long literary and artistic histories of funereal monuments, inscriptions, and activities. Whatever else they are, graves are not dead ends. As we’ve seen, they often live and speak. They become sites of literary fame and poetic creation. Graves evoke sexual desires. And therefore, as graves bring forth memories and ghosts from the past as well as promises of future pleasures, we may want to buckle ourselves in for a thunderous journey to hell and back that may, beginning in book seven, span the remaining books in the series. Here are a few possibilities:
Possibility #1: Gravesites are places where the dead speak. Given that so much of The Ink Black Heart was spent in Highgate Cemetery, I cannot be entirely certain that we’ll visit yet another grave or cemetery, but I would not be surprised if we do, whether it’s Leda’s – or, quite possibly, Rokeby’s. If it is Leda, she may be resurrected and speak through: (1) the newly-surfaced memories Strike experiences through conversations with a therapist and/or with his half-sister Prudence; (2) through stories passed on by Strike’s father, uncle Ted, or others who knew her; or (3) quite possibly through a book such as a diary that may even have been found at a gravesite or deathbed. As for the possibility that Rokeby will be facing his final end, giving the book the title The Running Grave rather cleverly points readers toward the poetry of Dylan Thomas without directly naming the poem for which he is most famous. “Do not go gentle into that good night” was written for the Welsh poet’s elderly, dying father:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
There’s not enough space here to offer a full reading of this poem; however, I will say that it is not about conquering death, which the poem acknowledges and seems to accept as inevitable, but about how to live with the knowledge of mortality. With its repeated call to “Rage, rage…” it’s a particularly apt poem for a dying rock star.
Possibility #2: The watchword of book seven will be growth. I began this essay by interpreting the phrase “running grave” as “living grave.” But what exactly is that? Ultimately, it is a mindfulness of mortality that frees someone (and I’m thinking here primarily of Strike but it is applicable to Robin too and indeed to all of us) to, on the one hand, accept the past with all of its pain and mistakes and, on the other hand, say Yes to the future, including death, without guilt, or fear, or conflict. If this essay has accomplished anything, I hope that I’ve demonstrated the fact that graves bring about life-changing effects on those who visit them, often for the better. And Strike will, I believe, begin to undergo such a transformation, a border crossing into a mature awareness of what his own mortality means for how he should live. Readers may possibly be reminded of chapter 21 of Troubled Blood where he witnesses the birthday party for the 80-year-old woman with lavender hair at the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich and, “Just for a moment, …[he] wondered where he’d be if he lived to eighty, and who’d be there with him.” But whether this transformation will move him so far as to declare his feelings for Robin in The Running Grave remains to be seen.
Possibility #3: There will be a good deal more sexual desire and seduction than we’ve seen, but I’ll leave the details to your imaginations, dear readers. For myself, I expect that we’ll learn more about how Leda and Rokeby met and made love than, say, Strike and Robin getting together.
Possibility #4: The theme of pregnancy and birth will be carefully – and productively – counter-woven into the book’s reflections on death and morality. The arrival of Nick and Ilsa’s first child will offer Robin and Strike the opportunity not only to stand as godparents at the Christening service, but perhaps also to reconsider their feelings about marriage and parenthood. We might also learn more from Rokeby (on his deathbed?) about Leda’s pregnancy and Strike’s birth.
A longer version of this essay would consider the importance of graves as beginnings in the Harry Potter series. After all, for Dumbledore death is not an ending but, with the right frame of mind, the beginning of “the next great adventure.” Voldemort’s mock resurrection at the grave of his father is arguably the fulcrum or pivot point of the entire book series, and that same graveyard scene witnesses the resurrection of Harry’s parents through the priory incantatem spell. It is their reappearance that provides the means of Harry’s escape, sending him on a quest that will last for the remaining three books. And in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, we see three important graveyard scenes. Voldamort raids Dumbledore’s tomb for the Elder Wand, selfishly yet falsely thinking that it will preserve him from death. By contrast, Harry’s visit to his parents’ graves and his burial of Dobby with his own hands while surrounded by his friends, helps him in his journey to see that self-sacrifice – that is, the acceptance of the grave and mortality, even if it means one’s own death – is the only life-giving path.