William Wordsworth opens “Elegiac Stanzas” (1807) by looking at George Beaumont’s Peele Castle in a Storm (1805) and admitting that he naïvely idealized nature and life prior to his brother John’s death—that “deep distress [which] hath humaniz’d [his] Soul” (36). Wordsworth states that he deceived himself about the reality of “thou rugged Pile” (1) so much that, if his “had been the Painter’s hand” as a younger man, he would have “add[ed] the gleam, / The light that never was” (14-15), and placed the castle “beside a sea that could not cease to smile” (19). Beaumont’s painting thus becomes an occasion for Wordsworth to reflect on his younger self and on his approach to art; through metaphor and ekphrasis, Wordsworth casts his former pastoral visions of a Golden Age as delusions and projects himself as a weather-beaten castle riding out the storm of his brother’s death.
It’s nearing the end of the year, finals are over, papers are due, but we’re literature majors here, so of course the only thing that matters is the symbolism of winter. The year is dying and ready to sleep forevermore — bringing in its death a spark of new life, new possibilities, and the mass cultural/capitalistic orgy that is the Christmas season. Parting with the cynicism, however, I decided that rather than construct coherent argument, I would instead remember a moment from one of my Romanticism courses and muse on the experience. Continue reading A Bird’s Song, and Two Men Divided by Death, United by Age
In its “List of Deaths for the Year 1750,” the Gentleman’s Magazine included one
Mrs Reed of Kentish Town, aged 81. She had kept a mahogany coffin and shroud by her 6 years, when thinking she should not soon have occasion for them she sold them, and dy’d suddenly the same evening. (188)
There’s an elaborate art of dying premised here. We can start with the articles of burial, at the ready, signaling Mrs. Reed’s vigilant preparation. Coffin and shroud are inmates, given the privilege of domestic intimacy, and death too will arrive like an intimate relation returning home. By disposing of the accoutrements of burial, Mrs. Reed presumed she would live. The unstated conclusion: her lapse in preparation invited the very thing she had ceased to fear. And it caught her, cruelly, without the benefit of last rites. (As Philippe Ariés explains, it is only recently that we have come to desire a quick death.) Death may be unknowable, but it seems to have an eye for formal irony and narrative resolution. Where we nod, it comes winking.