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  • The Churchyard Among the Wordsworthian Mountains: Mapping the Common Ground of Death and the Reconfiguration of Romantic Community
  • Michele Turner Sharp

As scholars devoted to the anthropology and sociology of death would teach us, the way that individuals relate to death — and to the dead — has much to do with how individuals relate to each other. In his pioneering study devoted to the practice of double burial among the Olo Ngaju people of Borneo, Robert Hertz notes “death has a specific meaning for the social consciousness; it is the object of a collective representation”:

We see life vanish but we express this fact by the use of a special language.... The body of the deceased is not regarded like the carcass of some animal: specific care must be given to it and a correct burial; not merely for reasons of hygiene but out of moral obligation. Finally, with the occurrence of death a dismal period begins for the living during which special duties are imposed upon them. 1

Death and the rituals that surround it, both public and private, are thus not to be seen as wholly individual phenomena but as social constructions. How and where individuals bury the dead, how individuals accomplish or fail to accomplish mourning, form a useful filter through which fundamental, although historically variable, traits of a given society come into focus.

It is with these considerations in mind that I turn my attention to William Wordsworth, the poet who, as Geoffrey Hartman has aptly noted, characteristically “reads landscape as if it were a monument or grave.” 2 The topography of Wordsworth’s poetry and prose is indeed littered with graves and traces of burial. An analysis of the deployment of these graves within the landscape and of the forces that come into play around them should provide us with the means to draw specific conclusions about how the notion of community functions in Wordsworth’s thought, about where it ought to be located and what its defining traits should be. In particular, as we shall see, the distribution of burial sites and the rituals of mourning [End Page 387] that surround them complicate Wordsworth’s distribution and differentiation of urban and rural spaces. Indeed, a critical look at the persistent failure of the inhabitants of rural spaces successfully to mediate death and the loss that it figures — their persistent failure to put the dead to rest — suggests a subtle complicity or indifference between the urban and the rural. The emergence of this complicitous indifference challenges Wordsworth’s argued — and ever controversial — preference for “humble and rustic life” as “that condition [in which] the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity.” 3 It likewise presents a challenge to a critic such as David Simpson who, without any naivete or lack of critical rigor (and in opposition to recent trends in Wordsworth scholarship defined by James Chandler, Marjorie Levinson, and Alan Liu), takes Wordsworth at his word. Although Simpson is able to note in his analysis of The Excursion the extent to which this poem represents country life as “clearly tainted both from without and from within,” and hence the “degree to which the rural idyll is questionable in its own, intrinsic terms, regardless of the threats of ulterior vested interests,” he avers with the poem’s narrator that “there is no doubt that rural life and solitude do... ‘favour most / Most frequently call forth, and best sustain’ the ‘pure sensations’ of both self-interest and the ‘mutual bond.’” 4 Simpson finds in this poem a

paradigm of active retirement... possible only in small communities, of the sort that Wordsworth saw to be increasingly threatened. Here only can one combine “private life / And social neighborhood,” mingling with others while remaining “self-governed, and apart.” 5

The point is precisely that these conditions were increasingly threatened. As Wordsworth wrote in his famous letter to Fox, an economy, like that of the Northern statesmen, based on the independent ownership of a small property, was (if it had ever existed) “rapidly disappearing.” 6 And regardless of the potential benefits afforded to the small proprietors in a subsistence economy, the fixation on...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 387-407
Launched on MUSE
1995-06-01
Open Access
No
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