Romanticism, Memory, and Mourning – reviewed by Allison Adler Kroll

‘Romanticism, Memory, and Mourning’ by Mark Sandy (Ashgate, 2013). 

BenichilonThe central premiss of Mark Sandy’s Romanticism, Memory, and Mourning is that Romantic memory, entirely circumscribed by the profound sense of loss which accompanies all forms of history, both personal and public, works by way of ‘wilful erasure’ (p.6), embedding every act of commemoration with mourning for what is absent. In anticipation of Freud, each moment of remembrance entails its concomitant act of repression. For Sandy, the primary locus of such repression is the ineffable fact of death, which the poets he studies acknowledge and evade as an inspiration for their writing, a limitation on the forms of expression available to them, and as the fate which makes or breaks their posthumous reputations and (possible) eternal fame.

Continuing the programme of his previous volume, on subjectivity in Keats and Shelley and their attempts to reconcile what Nietzsche would later term the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in the human psyche, Sandy situates his new study within a similarly Nietzschean framework. Sandy’s claim here and in his previous monograph is that Nietzsche iterates the progression of Romantic thought enacted by early nineteenth-century English poetry. Thus, he articulates as philosophy what Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Charlotte Smith, Felicia Hemans, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Clare express poetically. Like Nietzsche, as Sandy shows, Romantic poets were obsessed by their reputations, often to the point of paralysing anxiety. The forms and subjects of Romantic poetry reflect these anxieties; Romantic poets are drawn to fragments and ruins, Sandy argues, because, like Nietzsche’s penchant for aphorism, these forms ‘disrupt[] those teleological structures of agency, history, and time’ (p.7). In addition, fragments and ruins deny the closure of death whilst yet replicating the essence of Romantic memory by drawing attention to personal and cultural aporia and the mourning elicited by them. The paradoxical tendencies of Romantic poetry – where light and dark, creation and destruction, consolation and despair, to give but a few examples, constantly collide – also register the overarching angst which its central focus on recollection and loss embodies and perpetuates.

Each chapter focusses on one poet, with the exception of a chapter on both Charlotte Smith and Felicia Hemans. Sandy begins with a powerful reading of Blake’s poetry, in which he deals first with themes of loss in Songs of Innocence and Experience. In his early poetry, Sandy suggests, Blake conceives of human emotion as a mark of fallenness which at once signals the corruption of innocence through experience, but which in turn ‘informs and aids the redemption of all fallen innocents’ and makes empathy possible (p.21). There are limitations to the therapeutic effects of emotion and empathy, however, as the detachment of divine joy in relation to human suffering creates a sense of ‘cosmic grief’ which, Sandy argues, radically differentiates Blake from Wordsworth (p.13); where the latter poet sees a certain consolatory efficacy in recognising human loss poetically, Blake is less able to do so. Blake’s ‘fascination’ with Christ as ‘the man of sorrows’ underwrites the complicated dynamics of his later mythology (p.24), as Urizen and Los each descend into grief from their separate vantage points of   pity and empathy, to a certain extent mirroring God as aloof creator and Christ as suffering divinity in human form.

In his chapters on Wordsworth and Coleridge, Sandy contends that while Wordsworth’s poems begin with a series of communal perspectives on loss in order to provide personal consolation, Coleridge’s poetry ‘effects an outward sympathetic engagement with the wider world’ from moments of introspection (p.47). Wordsworth’s poetry, so often about rural scenes of loss, invests in the ‘circulation of grief’ as a means of recollecting the past and thereby conserving fragments of it (p.34). Yet these attempts to preserve communal memory often break down in ways which, Sandy concludes, show Wordsworth to be acutely aware of the limitations of the models of mourning and memory that his poetry offers. While poetic representations of ‘what is ruined’, in Michael or The Ruined Cottage, for example, ‘articulate the deepest grief’ (p.41), they depend on that poetic representation to effect consolation. Without the contextualising aid of poetic narrative, monuments to grief in the Wordsworthian landscape cannot create communities of memory, and are always at risk of becoming ‘blank, indecipherable inarticulate epitaphs’ (p.46). Community appears to be significant for Coleridge in his consolatory strategies, and his use of apostrophe in the conversation poems would seem to be a socially orientated gesture. Sandy, however, alerts us to the possibility that this extroverted form in Coleridge’s poetry might be a playful mask with which to cover over painful absences, and that the poet’s solitary speakers derive consolation from the playfulness of their own language and its ability to allow them to interact imaginatively with the world around them.

The chapter on Smith and Hemans is perhaps the least successful in Sandy’s present volume. Though it offers an intriguing pairing of these two poets, and though it contains a number of persuasive readings of individual poems, its brevity leaves the reader wanting further expansion, especially in relation to Hemans. Sandy contrasts Smith’s poems of mourning, which revolve around the natural world, with Hemans’s focus on the decline of civilisations as the defining feature of her elegiac poetry. For both poets, as with Wordsworth and Coleridge, the consolations afforded by their poems about loss are partly undermined by their too acute self-consciousness. Smith locates joy in the ‘discrete operations of the natural world’(p.76), but must also acknowledge nature’s cycles of death and decay, and furthermore, finds darker visions in the internalised landscapes into which her speakers sometimes defensively subsume themselves in grief, out of sync with and alienated from the joys of actual nature. Hemans, focussed on Byron’s poetic reputation, and partly her own, celebrates the past glories of Greek civilisation through its works of art, but worries that these monuments of ancient culture might overwhelm the memory of the artists who created them, just as poets might be ‘self-consumed’ by their own artistry (p.77).

Sandy’s study of Byron explores in greater detail some of the issues raised in the Hemans sections of the previous chapter. Byron is seen as seriously concerned with his poetic and personal reputation, and as seeking complicated solace in the art and culture of ancient Greece. While the great monuments of Greek civilisation live on, they require interpretation, which is entirely dependent upon the disposition of those who interpret; for Byron, who was savaged by the British press for his personal life, the consolations of art that lives beyond the artist are compromised by his anxieties about the possibility of misinterpretation. Shelley, too, appears in Sandy’s work as a poet anxious about his poetic legacy. The younger poet’s defensive recourse to solitary speakers who project their inner worlds onto the natural landscape and the elements that affect it threatens constant self-destruction as inner and outer, personal and historical, mortality and vitality, all collapse upon themselves. While self-containment and worlds of one’s own imagining create safe spaces for the poet and his expression, Shelley’s overly inward-looking mode ends in the loss of defining boundaries and can no more console than it can remain sufficiently connected to the outside world effectively to communicate and thus ensure future readership.

Keats, like Shelley, a major focus in Sandy’s earlier work, navigates the (proto-)Nietzschean categories of Dionysian mourning and Apollonian consolation. Like Byron, Sandy argues compellingly, Keats hold both categories in tension, giving his poetry a complexity wherein the imaginative consolations of romance––Apollonian and harmonious––give way to ‘Dionysian tragic realisation’ (p.130); necessary fictions fade in and out of grief-laden realities. Clare, too, seems caught between these two modes, though perhaps less self-consciously so (though Sandy is careful to qualify previous criticism which sees Clare as unselfconsciously sentimental). Minute descriptions of harmonious nature assuage Clare’s sense of loss in relation to his beloved Helpston, but also, more generally, to rural decay. At the same time, as with Charlotte Smith, an over-focus on the natural world disrupts poetic consolation as its cycles of decay and death merely reinscribe the losses that both poets attempt to write over.

Sandy’s study concludes with a thematic treatment of birdsong across several poetic generations, from Keats’s nightingale to Hopkins’s windhover and Yeats’s swans. While the argument of this chapter, that there are very clear continuities between Romantic, Victorian, and modern poetry, exemplified through the songs of poetic birds who voice grief and joy, mourning and consolation, is entirely germane, the assertion that there has been a general consensus of discontinuity is one that this reader has not encountered. Nonetheless, the continuity of readings from Romantic to modern poetry is engaging, and the volume closes on a high note.

Romanticism, Memory, and Mourning brings together themes which pervade Romantic poetry and scholarship, and in so doing, will appeal to a wide range of academic readership, from literary specialists to students of nineteenth-century culture and philosophy.

Reviewed by Allison Adler Kroll, a scholar of nineteenth-century English literature, history, and culture. After completing a Ph.D. in English literature at UCLA in 2004, Allison is now finishing a D.Phil. at Oxford University in history. She has previously published papers on cultural memory in Tennyson and Hardy, and is now working on a book which explores the origins of the English heritage industry.

Correspondence to Allison Adler Kroll

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