- Romanticism, Memory, and Mourning by Mark Sandy
This philosophical and formalist study of grief, loss, posthumousness, and posterity in Romantic poetry boldly addresses the contemporary demand for "relevance" by claiming resonance with our era's preoccupation with "grief, ageing, and its own demise" (p. 1). Sandy's thesis is that elegiac Romantic poetry's striving for consolation for multiple losses (private and public, retrospective and prospective) is subject to questioning that concludes in "disconsolation" and skepticism. Sandy relates his project to work by Jeremy Tambling, Andrew Bennett, and Esther Schor, but eschews the "psychopathology of Romantic grief" (p. 2) and "cultural materialist discourses of history" (p. 13), in favour of an existential approach informed by Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and Martin Heidegger. Here death is the defining term of life, emotion, and writing. It is "the final silence … that challenges poetry's eloquent capacity for meaning and signifies the end of its own linguistic existence," unspeakable, unthinkable, inevitable (p. 1). [End Page 169]
Romanticism, Memory, and Mourning seeks to make a decisive intervention in the field. It aims at comprehensive coverage; chronologically arranged author studies of William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charlotte Smith, Felicia Hemans, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and John Clare conclude with an argument for Romantic and Victorian continuities. For Sandy, Blake's poetry seldom deals directly with personal grief, but is "essentially elegiac" (p. 13) in dramatizing a "profound awareness of loss" (p. 21) as inherent to humanity's fallen spiritual state. Readings of "Simon Lee," Michael, and The Ruined Cottage "complicate and disrupt [Wordsworth's] consolatory vision of a circulation of grief" (p. 33); Sandy's Wordsworth is a religious skeptic, whose poetry reveals "a contingent reality of absence, fragmentation, transience, and broken relations" (p. 34). Coleridge's search for company in the conversation poems ends in intensified "isolation, fear, vacancy, absence, and death" (p. 14), while suggestive commentary on seascapes and shipwrecked subjects leads to the conclusion that Hemans and Smith "self-consciously question poetic convention and ascribed gender roles" in their encounters with loss and grief (p. 16). The account of ruins, history, and posthumous reputation in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Manfred is Sandy's most Nietzschean analysis (Byron's heroes ventriloquize aphorisms from Untimely Meditations). Sandy revisits the allegorical treatment of existential insights as dangerous sea voyages in discussing Shelley's Alastor and "Lines Written among the Euganean Hills." In Endymion, Isabella, the "Hyperion" poems, and several odes, Sandy finds a dark "Dionysian reality" behind Keats's "illusory … Apollonian dream" (p. 130). Clare's challenge is to sidestep nostalgia for a lost rural past in recreating powerful emotional landscapes, but Sandy finds instead "landscapes of mourning" (p. 132). The concluding pursuit of a "melancholy" Romantic nightingale through poems by Matthew Arnold; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Thomas Hardy; Gerard Manley Hopkins; and William Butler Yeats finds an enduring "tragic consciousness of loss" (p. 168) that affirms the strong legacy of Romantic grief poetics.
The Nietzschean and existential leave a strong imprint on Sandy's critical prose and argument. The premise that Romantic poets are caught in a bind where creativity and love are predicated on death and mourning generates a pervasive rhetoric of paradox and ambivalence. Sandy is an expert and subtle close-reader, but his readings and conclusions become predictable. A poem does "both" one thing "and yet also" (often "paradoxically") its opposite; one thought or emotion is "bound up with" its inverse. This subtlety can be responsive to individual poems' complexity, but it also homogenizes; the oeuvres of Blake and Keats, or of Coleridge and Clare, appear more similar than the reader knows them to be. The argument is overdetermined, so that in each chapter it is only a matter of time before all "terminates in grief and the grave" (p. 113). Tellingly, the keyword "grief" occurs in the titles of all nine chapters—a unifying pattern, but monotonous in effect. If happiness writes white, grief writes grey.
Critical studies of mourning in poetry typically concentrate on elegy, but to [End Page...