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Samantha Matthews. Poetical Remains – Poets’ Graves, Bodies, and Books in the Nineteenth Century

Marc PORÉE
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Samantha MATTHEWS. Poetical Remains – Poets’ Graves, Bodies, and Books in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford University Press, 2004, 240 pp., €82.60, ISBN 019925463X.

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1What is left of poets after they have passed away? Graves and books, answers Samantha Matthews in Poetical Remains, a study which capitalizes on body-oriented essays, while threatening to drive the trend into the ground, since it offers the ultimate take on poets—viewing them as terminal cases, but assessing their books as open-ended. The work purports to examine what it views as the particular affinity between poets' physical and literary “remains” in the Romantic to late Victorian period. Burial-places, monuments and epitaphs, memorial volumes, etc., are discussed at (great) length, focusing on the complex connections between the poets' body and the poetic “corpus”. Drawing on the emergent disciplines of book studies and death studies, the literature of poetic death is situated in its various contexts. The main text of Poetical Remains divides into three phases: Romantic—premature deaths in marginal, obscure or exiled conditions; the post-Romantic transition (Wordsworth and Thomas Hood); and high Victorian (Browning and Tennyson). The structure is approximately chronological, taking a poet's death as a point of intersection between literary and burial issues—exhumation and biography, the poet's grave, the “poetic” churchyard and the “unpoetic” cemetery, and the recuperation of the Poet's Corner—as they become dominant through the century. Chapter 1 introduces interpretative perspectives, contexts, and recurring themes and motifs through an analysis of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's exhumation of his poems from Elizabeth Siddal's coffin in the Rossetti family grave in Highgate Cemetery in 1869, and the “phantom” graves imagined by Rossetti himself before his burial at Birchington-on-Sea in 1882. Opening as it does with a parody by Rossetti himself of Victorian memorial conventions and commemorative verse, in the guise of a drawing showing the (fat) poet crying over the body of his beloved (corpulent) wombat, the chapter makes for a spirited debut, and sets the tone, mostly ungrave, though consistently forensic. In chapter 2 the repeated actual and biographical exhumations of Burns's remains are considered in the context of linked anxieties about resurrectionism, dissection, and quasi-medical biographical strategies. Chapter 3 discusses Mary Tighe in relation to the insistent representation of the poetess as posthumous, and Felicia Heman's use of Tighe's grave to think through her own relation to this over-determined model of feminine authorship. The strategies of recuperation and redress initiated by the premature deaths of Keats and Shelley in critical neglect, physical exile and under draconian quarantine laws, are the subject of Chapter 4—a chapter which suffers from the fact that Byron is only mentioned in passing: granted, the story of the return of his remains and of his burial inside the family vault has been told a number of times before, if only by Fiona MacCarthy in her latest biography, but still, the omission is damaging. Chapter 5 considers Wordsworth's pastoral grave at Grasmere as the perfect fulfilment of the literary ideal of the poet's country churchyard grave, thus possessing a living significance far superior to other Wordsworthian memorials. The subject of Chapter 6 is the somewhat ill-matched burial of Thomas Hood, the author of “The Song of the Shirt”, at Kensal Green, London's most fashionable cemetery, the first of its entrepreneurial kind, and his neglected grave's subsequent marking by a pompous public monument, totally at odds, again, with the democratic drift of his work. The final two chapters consider contrasting burials in Poet's Corner: that of Robert Browning, first buried “In a Gondola” in Venice, and then repatriated to England (without the remains of Elizabeth Barrett), where the tribute paid to him was fulsome if somewhat evasive, for Browning was never a popular poet in the accepted sense of the word. Two concerns of the time are discussed, first, the fear that putrid gases rising from the decayed body of the poet might contaminate the august atmosphere of Westminster Abbey, and second, the unease of Browning's friends at having to mourn the passing of a man who was adamant in his declarations: “Never say of me that I am dead!” The chapter ends with the evocation of the post-mortem playing of Browning's words, recorded on a cylinder of wax, April 7, 1889, this being the first time that a human voice was being heard beyond the grave. The irony being of course, that Browning, impressed by the novelty of the medium, had fluffed his own lines, leaving the energetic rush of his name, bellowed at the end of the recording session, to speak and sign for himself, thus replacing or displacing the materiality of the grave by the immateriality of a mere flatus vocis. The last chapter, “Tennyson and the Red, White, and Blue”, is more conventional, recounting as it does the pomp and circumstance surrounding the burial of the Poet Laureate, in a mood of general affliction and national consensus. Journalistic reports are summoned, eye-witnesses' accounts are elicited, all of which agree as to the disappointing nature of such mass events, when attendants rudely jostle past policemen, allegedly to pay their respects to a dead poet, but in actual fact to be seen by their peers or their betters in the act of mourning. It is a pity that Samantha Matthews was not induced into making the most of this kind of highly inappropriate epitaph—“prosaic” is the word—, instead of emphasizing as she does the nationalistic side of the occasion, labouring the idea as she goes along, burying the point even, if I may say so, under a pall of minute particulars, some of which will appear tediously superfluous (or outrageously patriotic). This is only to cast a minor blemish on a work that is finely researched, strongly argued in its wide and comprehensive selection of typical and highly emblematic poetic deaths, and mercifully jargon-free in its writing. Theory-addicts might find the book a wee bit too factual, but true lovers of poetry will relish it, for, contrary to appearances, reading about “strange stories of the death of poets” (in the words of Keats) only makes one even more anxious to pay one's respects to their imperishable books. One final regret, though: that room for a discussion of the painting by Stanley Spencer, Resurrection, was not found: it would have given greater substance to Samantha Matthews's early claim that “Poetic history appears as a line of graves and monuments, which the aspirant hopes his own will join” (12). Since poetic history is never-ending, one is bound to look forward to an extension of the theme of Poetic Remains into the twentieth-century, if only via the emergence of the phenomenon of grave-tagging. One thinks of the aerosolled tombstones of Tony Harrison's parents in Leeds (“V”), or of the often desecrated grave of Sylvia Plath. But that's another story, still to be written.

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Marc PORÉE, « Samantha Matthews. Poetical Remains – Poets’ Graves, Bodies, and Books in the Nineteenth Century », E-rea [En ligne], 3.2 | 2005, document 6, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2005, consulté le 28 avril 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/576

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Marc PORÉE

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