- Poetical Remains: Poets' Graves, Bodies, and Books in the Nineteenth Century
The truism that great poets never die does not diminish the interest of Samantha Matthews's Poetical Remains: Poets' Graves, Bodies, and Books in the Nineteenth Century. Matthews's book combines a rigorous and engaging reception history with a historiography of the body of the kind that has interested many scholars working in the wake of Michel Foucault. Matthews offers us detailed accounts of the textual and biological remains of ten important Romantic and Victorian poets: Robert Burns, Mary Tighe, Felicia Hemans, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, Thomas Hood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Browning, and Alfred Tennyson. In these, she considers the intersection between poets' verse and their post-mortem treatment by the cultures that read them.
Matthews takes for an exemplar the unfortunate case of Rossetti, whose grief at the loss of his wife prompted him to inter her with a unique manuscript of his poems, and whose subsequent recovery from grief prompted him to disinter her in order to get the poems back. For Matthews, this grisly episode epitomizes Romanticism's recurring desire to embody its ideas of poetry and literary inspiration. The impulse is a Gothic one: neither Renaissance nor Neoclassical poets practiced so distinctive a cult of the body. Shakespeare may have tossed a quill into Spenser's coffin, but he did not toss in his only copy of Othello. On the contrary, the very art of Shakespeare's Sonnet LV ("Not marble nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme") relies on a clear distinction between immaterial and material remains, between immortal and mortal bodies. The Romantics resisted such a distinction, seeking to refigure the connection between a poet's body and work. Simply put, Rossetti's gesture contradicts the logic of Sonnet LV. [End Page 555]
Poetical Remains thus illuminates an important juncture in the cultural negotiation of poetic corpora, and it describes in fascinating detail the industry that grows up around it (and that even today will direct us to these gravesites). Matthews is particularly good at recounting the deliberations of this industry as they took place between the poet's personal survivors or literary heirs and other cultural institutions: periodical presses, churches, governments. Mary Shelley quarrels with Leigh Hunt over her husband's calcified heart when it apparently survives the flames of his cremation. The exiled remains of Keats and (the rest of) Shelley serve as a reproach to the nation that failed to appreciate them in life. Hood finds himself buried in the bourgeois Kensal Green as a (backward) tribute to his famous "Song of the Shirt" (1843). Browning's burial in Westminster Abbey's "Poets' Corner" requires pacifying those who feel he should lie in Italy alongside his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and those who feel that her coffin should be brought to Westminster to lie with him. Finally, as though overcompensating for faux pas marking the above-mentioned episodes, Tennyson's funeral entails such heroic pomp that poetry itself becomes curiously lost. As Edmund Gosse put it: "The whole thing was enormous, crushing, exceedingly well-done, national and prosaic" (283).
The book also affords a rich historical context for the vast number of poems written on or about gravesites, an important aspect of nineteenth-century poetic culture. The recent renewal of interest in Victorian women's poetry, for instance, has often focused on tribute poems as links in a chain of literary influence: Hemans on Tighe, L.E.L. on Hemans, Barrett Browning on L.E.L. on Hemans, Christina Rossetti on L.E.L. and Barrett Browning, Michael Field on Christina Rossetti. Matthews offers a vivid sense of how difficult it could be for women to fashion memorial tributes in a culture that had fixed expectations of both female death (in Christian resignation) and its lyric expression (in pastoral elegy). "The Grave of a Poetess" (1828), Hemans's pastoral tribute to Tighe's modest genius, stands in striking...