Review: Romanticism, Memory and Mourning

Posted by Carly Stevenson on November 20, 2014 in Uncategorized tagged with , , , , ,

Published by Ashgate (2013)

 Romanticism, Memory and Mourning by Durham University’s Dr Mark Sandy is a detailed study of how the major Romantic poets (and a selection of their ‘post-Romantic’ heirs) respond to ideas of grief, loss and death on both a personal and a public level. Within a critical framework of Nietzchean philosophy, Sandy interrogates the interplay between consolation and disconsolation in the grieving, fragmentary Romantic subject, whose fears about the finality of death (and the desire to overcome this mortal restraint) permeate their poetry, often to the point of obsession. Sandy’s thought-provoking study on Romantic manifestations of grief considers certain Romantic poets whose body of work exhibits an acute awareness of the complex relationship between history, memory and mourning. The poets Sandy interrogates are characterised by an uncertain, self-questioning and self-conscious ethos that speaks to Romantic (and arguably self-destructive) preoccupations about the horrifying allure of death. Anxieties about posthumous fame haunt the imaginative landscapes of poetic ‘works of mourning’ and Sandy guides us through these expressive sites of grief with a series of attentive close readings that communicate each poet’s own private and communal engagement with loss. Throughout, Sandy highlights the nuances present in Romantic expressions of mourning, from Blake’s interaction with seemingly opposing states of grief and delight (which we see later in John Clare’s ‘Landscapes of Memory and Mourning’) to the echoes of mournful birdsong in Yeats’s later work.

The book comprises nine chapters, each dedicated to a particular poet’s treatment of this topic, with the exception of chapter four, which focuses thematically on both Charlotte Smith and Felicia Hemans, and the final chapter, which examines the afterlives of ‘Romantic Forms of Grief in Victorian Poetic Birdsong’. The chronological structure emphasises that despite sharing an over-arching attitude to memory and mourning, each poet’s response to grief takes a disparate form. For example, Shelley’s ineffable sense of grief is bound up with an anxious awareness of the transient nature of experience, whereas Keats accepts and is somewhat seduced by the obscurity of this cyclical process of forgetting and recalling. His unforgettably poignant lines ‘Darkling I listen; and, for many a time/ I have been half in love with easeful death’ spring to mind here.

Romanticism, Memory and Mourning moves articulately through these inarticulate sites of poetic loss, culminating with a rewarding conclusion that reconciles historicist readings of the inevitable, unutterable, event of death as it is staged prematurely through acts of poetic expression. Sandy argues for continuity, not disjuncture between Romantic and ‘post-Romantic’ elegiac poetics: ‘Keats’s darkling songster communicates to Yeats’s golden bird a tragically joyful affirmation of the all too natural and all too profoundly human and poetic forms of grief.’

As Sandy’s introduction suggests, the topic of this book is particularly significant in an age preoccupied with the preservation of youth and the extension of life. The Romantic quest for immortality endures as we become increasingly concerned with finding new ways to enhance and optimise ourselves, whether physically (through cosmetic surgery, lifestyle alterations) or through our creative outputs. Therefore, Romanticism, Memory and Mourning is as much about the transhistorical nature of our communal existential anxieties than it is about grieving Romantic voices.

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