One: Elegia and the Enlightenment
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ONE ELEGIA AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT When one is afraid to ask the wife of a tradesman whom she has lost of her family; and after some preparation endeavours to know whom she mourns for; how ridiculous is it to hear her explain herself, “That we have lost one of the house of Austria!” (Richard Steele, Spectator #64 [1711] ) Mourning, Morals, and Money the Enlightenment. Since my analysis will invoke disciplines as diverse as literature, philosophy, politics, and economics, it T HIS CHAPTER interprets the cultural meanings of mourning in seems a good idea to start by saying what I am not attempting here. First, although “the elegy” is my point of departure, I do not offer a comprehensive literary history of elegy per se; to show why such a history would miss both the point and the purview of mourning during the Enlightenment is one of the burdens of my argument. Second, while this chapter describes a shift in the representation of mourning during the first half of the eighteenth century, it necessarily anticipates developments more easily discerned in texts written during the latter half of the century. While such anticipations may seem to risk compromising what is historical about this account of the British Enlightenment, they also register the perils of narrating as developments what are more truly glimpsed as latencies and tendencies. Finally, a caveat about the eponymous personification of Elegia in this chapter’s title. While my argument does not focus sustainedly on the vexed relations between gender and genre, it repeatedly demonstrates (and at moments, lingers over) the implication of gender in ostensibly formal generic categories. The Enlightenment shift toward the masculine gendering of mourning—a shift described in the change from Steele’s “wife of a tradesman” to Gray’s “rude forefathers of the hamlet”—accompanies a strengthening conviction in the public significance of mourning. Such masculinization of mourning was not reversed until the Victorian period; that the Victorians should at once have domesticated and refeminized mourning is not, as I shall argue at the end of this study, as retrograde a symmetry as it might seem. While I want to render the contours of this symmetry boldly, I have tried also 20 CHAPTER O NE to shade them with historical specificity, placing them in the context of larger debates about gender and power. This chapter, first, makes claims for the increasing centrality of mourning during Britain’s coming of age as an economic and political power; and second, anticipates the pressures—both extrinsic and intrinsic , historical and textual—countervailing this phenomenon in the final decades of the eighteenth century. What promoted mourning to this position of importance was the convergence of two needs, needs announced variously in the discourses of morals and money. First, moral philosophers such as Shaftesbury and Hutcheson sought to link an individual ’s “moral sense”—an inborn, natural basis for moral judgement— with the morals of the community. With Hume and later Adam Smith, attention became focused on the phenomenon of sympathy, on the possible ways in which individual sympathies might provide the basis for a public morality. In Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, the need to theorize a public morality dovetails with the need to address the precariousness of an economy increasingly dependent on paper money and credit. Smith’s theory suggests that the dead become, as it were, the gold standard for the circulation of sympathies within a society; at a single stroke, Smith both provides a theoretical account of the relation between private morals and public morality and suggests a role for mourning in remediating anxieties attending the proliferation of paper money in the British economy. Smith’s metaphorical economy of British morals in the 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments—as one might expect, corollary tropes of a moralized economy would appear in the 1776 Wealth of Nations—licensed a new esteem for literary mourning, for by promoting social homogeneity, mourning figuratively filled both the hearts and the coffers of the nation. This chapter argues that textual mourning is the rhetorical praxis for which Smith’s concept of a dynamic, circulating, sympathetic culture of mourning is the theory. An Unfortunate Lady I want to approach the culture of mourning in the Enlightenment by taking up a point of debate in early eighteenth-century letters: the contested meaning of the formal term “elegy.” Pastoral elegy, admired during the Renaissance in Britain and on the continent, had been out of vogue for nearly a century; in 1638...


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