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"Live to Die, Die to Live": An Introduction

From: Eighteenth Century Fiction
Volume 21, Number 1, Fall 2008
pp. 1-11 | 10.1353/ecf.0.0032

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Two sets of images illuminate this special issue of Eighteenth Century Fiction, "Death/La Mort." Marble putti grace the front and back covers: one, a girl, gazes calmly at a skull; the other, a boy, weeps as he holds an hourglass. Probably carved between 1680 and 1720 by a Dutch or English craftsman, these putti were intended to decorate a funeral monument in a church or a family burial chapel, and perhaps did at some point. Though the carvings are gorgeously realized, they are nonetheless conventional: putti holding the emblems of death commonly adorned more lavish baroque tombs.1 Products of a pan-European aristocratic aesthetic, they were designed to convey the wealth and power of a great family. The second set of images, appearing between the articles of this issue, could hardly differ more. These verses and woodcuts from the English folk rhyme "Who Killed Cock Robin?" are indigenous art, cheaply reproduced for children and the marginally literate. The ballad, which has obscure origins, first appeared in print in Tom Thumb's Pretty Songbook of 1744 and became over time a common chapbook nursery rhyme. These images create a world of fable: a parish of animals tending its dead and enacting the mundane mechanics of Christian burial—the tolling of bells, the sewing of shrouds, the bearing of palls. Although some readers have sought a political allegory in these lines, the intent of the poem is, clearly, to teach children the steps by which the dead, even the very poor, are laid to rest and grieved. As much as the putti, "Cock Robin" speaks to the necessary public displays and rituals by which the dead are set apart from the living, but the rhyme registers at the same time some of the inadequacies of the protocols by which the bodies of the dead, and the emotions of a community of mourners, are contained. Eighteenth-century church doctrine and ritual vigorously disavowed the validity of the regular emotions of death, grief and fear—a denial that must have sounded hollow. Taken together, both works of art confirm the role of religion in managing death in the Enlightenment. Christianity had a doctrine for explaining this most catastrophic of life's events. The putti and the "Cock Robin" woodcuts emphasize that in this period people were meant to live with death in view, a prominent theme in popular devotional literature of the period. Jeremy Taylor, in his much reprinted The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651), advises that we "make Death as present to us, our own Death, dwelling and dress'd in all its Pomp of Fancy, and proper Circumstances."2 So too William Sherlock, in his Practical Discourse Concerning Death (1689), exhorts good Christians "to take a timely leave of the World, and to withdraw from the noise and business of it ... to direct their Face wholly to that World whither they are going."3 The essays in this collection all elaborate upon this eighteenth-century preoccupation, which is proclaimed in the common motto embossed or engraved on mourning rings: "Live to Die, Die to Live."

Such sentiments might seem alien to most twenty-first-century readers, and much of the social history of death over the last century dwells on the striking differences between early and later modern attitudes. As Walter Benjamin puts it: "Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one ... In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. There used to be no house, hardly a room in which someone had not once died ... Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs."4 In two books published in the mid-1970s, Western Attitudes toward Death and The Hour of Our Death, Philippe Ariès provides...



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