- What Remains:Matthew Arnold's Poetics of Place and the Victorian Elegy
Matthew Arnold's elegy for Charlotte Brontë, "Haworth Churchyard," includes perhaps the most macrabre image—and embarrassing mistake—of his poetic oeuvre. In the early part of the poem the speaker laments the impossibility of communing with Brontë, whose body, he suggests, is decaying among the graves in Haworth Churchyard. The speaker describes Brontë's corpse being covered by and absorbed into the Yorkshire earth:
Turn we next to the dead.—How shall we honor the young,The ardent, the gifted? how mourn?Console we cannot, her earIs deaf. Far northward from here,In a churchyard high 'mid the moorsOf Yorkshire, a little earthStops it for ever to praise.1
Arnold's lines revel in the pathos of Brontë's outdoor grave. Addressing Charlotte, Arnold describes her grave as surrounded by those of her siblings in the bleak parsonage churchyard: "Round thee they lie—the grass / Blows from their graves to thy own!" (ll. 88-89). The churchyard that Arnold describes is the overcrowded plot of land beside the Brontë parsonage. On the edge of the moor, shadowed by a canopy of trees and creeping towards the brick edifice of the parsonage, the churchyard is a synecdoche for all that is strange and morbid about the village of Haworth. In truth, however, the Brontës are buried not in the elegy's titular churchyard, but rather within Haworth church, the more respectable resting place that would have been natural for the family of the village's parson. By using Haworth Churchyard and its scene of wind-swept death as his elegy's conceit, Arnold quite literally misplaces Charlotte Brontë's final resting place.
Arnold's mistaken burial is more significant and revealing than scholars have hitherto realized. Indeed, this moment of "misburial" is central [End Page 147] to Arnold's poetic practice. Arnold's prolonged attention to the place of Haworth, alongside his displacement of Brontë's grave—from interior to exterior, from unremarkable church to the mythical landscape of the West Riding of Yorkshire—rewrites the topography of elegiac address and, in so doing, essentially reburies Brontë within the churchyard. "Haworth Church-yard" is an example of how Arnold's elegies simultaneously produce and exploit the associative power of the site; in so doing, they expand the work of elegy, making it both a genre of consolation and memory and one of spatial production. In this essay, I argue that Arnold's elegies deploy a revised form of the pastoral and the trope of apostrophe to make people, in their absence, inseparable from the places of their past; in turn the elegies remake these places into sites of mourning and memory that endure despite the consolatory work of the elegy itself.
Arnold wrote more elegies than any of his Victorian contemporaries, but his poems inched their way into nineteenth-century culture and remain too-often overlooked in our time.2 The elegies appeared on the pages of Cornhill and Fraser's magazines or scattered throughout his collected works. They were often buried within tables of contents and featured among the quotidian business of the periodical, sharing pages with articles on university reform and periwinkles.3 Arnold's poetic practice was often explicitly commercial and his elegies responded to what scholars recognize as the Victorian period's abiding interest in the rituals of grief and mourning.4 Eager not only for a poem's publication, but also for the payment that followed such an occasion, Arnold wrote pleadingly to editors, trying to convince them of an elegy's topicality, beauty, or necessity.5 Despite his best efforts, Arnold's elegies were largely ignored by contemporary critics and remain unexamined in our own time—indeed, it often seems as though the canon of Victorian elegies has room only for Tennyson. What Arnold has left behind, however, constitutes both an archive of elegies and a means by which to turn the landscapes of the Victorian age into an archive of their own.
Reading Arnold's poems collectively, we see the contours of the Victorian elegy begin to change: it becomes more overtly public and...