Graved in Tropes: The Figural Logic of Epitaphs and Elegies in Blair, Gray, Cowper, and Wordsworth
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Graved in Tropes:
The Figural Logic of Epitaphs and Elegies in Blair, Gray, Cowper, and Wordsworth

Some of the most influential work in the deconstruction of rhetoric, work often tested on Romanticism at large and on Wordsworth in particular, has repeatedly returned for discussion and debate to a figural complex — namely, the overlap of prosopopoeia and apostrophe (personification and invocation) — that is found implicated when the relation of death to language is pursued under the common denominator of absence. This work has proceeded along lines that tend to obscure the classically-based distinctions between these two figural modes and that further disable a full appreciation of the ways in which these very tropes are widely mobilized in neoclassical verse, especially in poetry on the subject of death. Without such distinctions about eighteenth-century texts, tropological employment in Romantic verse is easily misconstrued. Before turning to Wordsworth’s critically devalued Excursion, I wish to offer as test cases three eighteenth-century poems about death by Blair, Gray, and Cowper, and suggest that their range of figural logic challenges the usual explanations of tropological functions and their relation to representations of death.

We will find that, although evaluative literary history has tended to grant Robert Blair’s The Grave (1743) only occasional attention — despite the poem’s immense influence and its central location in the eighteenth-century Graveyard School — its simultaneous bestowal and erasure of animicity capitalizes in didactic fashion on the very failure of prosopopoeia and apostrophe to animate or to act as catalysts for vocalization. The dizzying series of displacements and substitutions of subjects, always considered a crux in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), results from a complex manipulation of epitaphic rhetoric. While the structure of the “Elegy” hinges on the traditional epitaph’s separation of personification and apostrophe, William Cowper’s “Inscription for the Tomb of Mr. Hamilton” (1800) partially collapses the boundaries between speaker, addressee, and reader by making the reader’s body the site of personification and apostrophic address. In appropriating the very [End Page 347] person of the reader in order to personify meaning, Cowper not only works within an epitaphic tradition for didactic purposes, but anticipates Romantic definitions of the more self-commemorating epitaphic mode. These three works mark stages in the representation of an intersubjectivity — that phenomenological sense of a network or nexus of consciousness — rendered increasingly generalized and community-oriented. Wordsworth’s Excursion (1814) is thus revealed, not as the unwitting lapse into sentimental philosophizing, but as the deliberate, culminating expression of the collective rather than the individualist nature of the epitaphic charge. But before visiting any poetic sites, our figural excursion will begin by revisiting major deconstructive interpretations of tropological logic to establish how figural representations comment on their interpretations and vice versa.

The crux of all the texts to be considered here — both poetic and theoretical alike — is the situating of voice. It is not surprising that there should be difficulties in establishing a logic of address in an epitaphic text or in a theoretical exploration of the implications of absence-riddled language, since the traditional epitaph itself regularly problematizes the issue of who is speaking to whom. A reader-response situation is literally inscribed in “Halt, traveler,” that imperative opening common to so many classical epitaphs, from which the English epitaph borrows much of its structure and many of its motifs. Made to pause in his journey, the traveler is often instructed to read the text before him in order to honor and, in a rather shadowy sense, to reanimate briefly the deceased, who through the epitaph, demands attention. A promise of general good fortune or of similar commemoration in the future after the current reader is dead — a return on funerary “credit” — may be tendered to increase the appeal. Of course, the reader is already activating the text by the time the instruction comes to do so; his arrest depends on his recognition of an inscription as something requiring a reading. Unlike private reading, however, which “gives voice to” a text, reading out loud transforms the epitaph into a public voicing that creates a relationship with the deceased and her inscription, no...