By Emily Stanback
And there, along that bank, when I have passed At evening, I believe that oftentimes A full half-hour together I have stood Mute, looking at the grave in which he lies. The Prelude (1805), V.420 – 23.
This section of the exhibit begins by conceiving of the gravesite as a kind of nexus which brings into close and troubled contact the radically material and immaterial. In the presence of a grave it can be easy—at times all too easy—to feel oneself out of time, suspended in individual or communal memory, contemplating generations past, lost family members and friends, death itself, God, futurity, humanity, paradise, hell. That burial sites function for Wordsworth as exemplary spots in both the geographic and temporal senses of the word—which Sally Bushell helped to illuminate for us yesterday—is a relatively obvious point. For Wordsworth gravesites emerge as locations / locuses of unusual potency, creative potential, and ethical importance; in his poetry the grave has the capacity to seize, to trouble, to admonish, to provoke insight and critical reflection. And in speaking of the grave’s “capacity” here, I choose my syntax intentionally because in this paper I wish to assign the gravesite itself an affective presence and even a kind of agency.
Although for many, gravesite contemplation may feel inwardly-generated, or may seem to be elicited by some sort of higher power—and although many may thusly read instances of gravesite contemplation in Wordsworth’s poetry—I want to suggest something that his textual remains equally indicate. Namely, that the impact of the gravesite is in large part be due to its materiality, the objects and natural features that may impact or mediate our experience of the location and all it comes to mean for us. In this paper I will consider the space of the graveyard, and will pay special attention to the gravestone, which I understand here as an unusually rich kind of dialogic text that acquires its potency not only from whatever names, words, and dates may or may not be legible on its surface, but also, and often principally, because of its presence, location, and functionality as a material body that may act on the human body. The mere shape of a gravestone discloses the proximity of human remains and each gravestone’s singular qualities invite—and sometimes aggressively provoke—a kind of participatory narration of the history or importance of the body it memorializes. This is especially true of the eighteenth-century gravestone, the aesthetics of which call attention to the medium of the stone and the textual conventions of which foreground ideas of human embodiment at what was an unusually rich and ambivalent period in the history of medicine.
Before examining the gravestone, I will begin by ever so briefly considering what “We Are Seven” can remind us about the geographical space of the late-eighteenth-century graveyard. At the 2008 NASSR Summer Conference, Josh Wilner delivered a paper titled “Dwelling with the Dead” that focused largely on “We Are Seven.” A pivot point of his paper was a simple fact that, he rightly noted, “tends to get overlooked” in scholarship of the poem: that the little maid and her mother “live in a graveyard,” or at least close enough she can say that her siblings John and Jane lie “side by side” “Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door.” This instance of grave mapping—a variation of which happens in “The Thorn” as the narrator measures the pond—points to what Wilner characterizes as an everyday reality attendant on common church practices; “parish houses for the poor” were often next to the church’s graveyard.
Another aspect of the poem that bears spatial contextualization is the idea of a child playing in the graveyard. As I will discuss later, Wordsworth’s own school, Hawkshead Grammar, abutted the town’s church and graveyard. The same is (or was once) true of many other rural schools, including Grasmere’s; and what was once Grasmere’s schoolhouse became a structure leased cheaply to the poor, after which point it became Sarah Nelson’s gingerbread shop, which many of you know lies at a gate to St. Oswald’s graveyard, a space in which we know Wordsworth’s children to have played. Thus we may read “We Are Seven” as depicting a conceptual conflict between the understandings of death fostered by the differing material realities of different classes of society.
The portion of this exhibit “Culture of Lakeland Churches,” details some of the many other ways in which the church and graveyard functioned as everyday spaces before and at Wordsworth’s time—for example as dance halls and marketplaces—but the quotes with which “Culture of Lakeland Churches” begins also aptly demonstrate how for Wordsworth the man (as for Dorothy), the everydayness of the graveyard, the ways that it was integrated into and structured the ordinary, did not detract from or adequately mitigate the impact of its physical proximity. A passage from Wordsworth’s 1810 “Essay on Epitaphs” is relevant here. In writing on the origins of the “Monument” that may serve as an “external sig[n]” to “point out the places where th[e] dead are interred,” Wordsworth writes,
And, verily, without the consciousness of a principle of immortality in the human soul, Man could never have had awakened in him the desire to live in the remembrance of his fellows: mere love, or the yearning of kind towards kind, could not have produced it… I confess, with me the conviction is absolute, that, if the impression and sense of death were not thus counterbalanced [by the principle of immortality], such a hollowness would pervade the whole system of things, such a want of correspondence and consistency, a disproportion so astounding betwixt means and ends, that there could be no repose, no joy.
In other words, human love is not enough to account for a physical memorial to the dead, nor is the sympathetic impulse. The only things commensurate to the awful potential of the gravestone are the ideas of God and immortality. This suggests the inherent traumatic potential of the gravestone as an object in space, and accounts for how a community without monuments could emerge in “The Brothers” as a kind of welcome fantasy.
There are a number of unique aspects of 18th and early-19th century gravestones that make them quite different from current gravestones, or even the memorials of the mid- to late-19th century, and these can enable us to better understand Wordsworth’s visceral ambivalence towards them and his frequent poetic depictions of their affective power. I use examples here of gravestones from Lake District churchyards, many of which appear in Wordsworth’s poetry and letters. I do so in part because the poet himself seemed inclined to compare and even classify gravesites, and encouraged his readers to do the same, as when he remarks of Rob Roy’s grave that it “in one of those small Pin-fold-like Burial-grounds, of neglected and desolate appearance, which the Traveller meets in the Highlands of Scotland.”
On a very basic level the conventions of textual framing in 18th and early-19th century Lakeland gravestones reveal a tension between, on the one hand, the materiality of the corpse and the gravestone which indicates its presence, and, on the other, the heaven and deity towards which many inscriptions gesture. The most frequent textual framing I found on early 18th century gravestones, one which became less predominant as the century progressed but was not altogether supplanted by 1800, is the phrase “Here lieth” (or “lies”) “the body of.” This is, not at all coincidentally, I think, the same language that the little maid of “We Are Seven” uses when she says that her siblings “lie” nearby; her desire to consider their material presence as equal to hers, although her “limbs they are alive,” makes more sense in the context of gravestones that indicate the presence of a “body.”
The Little Maid aside, at least for the moment, the idea of a “body” “lying” beneath would have gestured in the 18th century not only to a theological belief in the separation at death of the body and the soul, but also would have indicated the existence of a corpse, bones, and other human remains mixed into the soil beneath the gravestone. The development and widespread use of embalming techniques in the following century, and the later popularization of cremation, could allow one to maintain a mental image of the deceased as a visual object suspended or preserved, but for Wordsworth and his contemporaries the human corpse was, of necessity, decaying flesh and bones.
The bodies that lieth beneath 18th-century Lakeland gravestones are variously said to have “departed this life,” (as in the image on the slide), to have, quite simply “died,” or to be “sleeping” or “slumbering.” By invoking an image of suspended animation, “sleeping” and “slumbering” further complicate the conflict between the material body and the transcendent soul, as do adjectives like “mouldering,” which appear before “body” in some epitaphs. They also amplify the tension between closure and continuation, that in one way or another all gravestones may be said to invoke.
In thinking about the affective impact of the gravestone on Wordsworth’s narrators (or on the poet himself), a number of features common to pre-Romantic and Romantic epitaphs become relevant. Biblical quotes were common at the time, but not quite so common as they became in the mid-19th century. It was not unusual for a 18th-century gravestone to directly address “You” or “The Reader,” often in a voice purporting to be that of the deceased. One, on the gravestone for Joseph Fisher, who “Departed this Life” in 1774, is written in the first person:
All You that come my Grave to see, As I am now You soon must bee; Repent and turn to God in time, For I was taken in my Prime.
Speaking directly to us, Fisher asks us to imagine our own death and to sympathetically identify with his corpse in its present state. Adam Smith’s awkward description of sympathizing with the dead in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is reflective of this sociocultural moment, and bears mention because of way that Smith describes an especially embodied kind of sympathy, and also for the difficulty he evidently finds in expressing this imaginative act:
“We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave a prey to corruption and the reptiles of the earth; to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated in a little time from the affections and almost from the memory of their dearest friends and relations… The idea of that dreary and endless melancholy, which the fancy naturally ascribes to their condition, arises altogether from our joining to the change which has been produced upon them, our own consciousness of that change, from our putting ourselves in their situation, and from our lodging, if I may be allowed to say so, our own living souls in their inanimated bodies, and thence conceiving what would be our emotions in this case.”
~ Adam Smith
John Jopson’s gravestone offers what is, at least purportedly, the deceased’s voice quite literally materializing from below to share “The following Lines at his Desire.”
John Hudson’s epitaph builds on Jopson’s mention of the loss of his “Days of Health”:
JOHN HUDSON (“dy’d” 1763) Lo here a Brother sleeps in peace Worn out with pain and long Disease But now his tedious Conflict’s o’er Disease and Death can kill no more. Think Reader as thou’rt passing by Thy nature’s Birthright is to DIE. Then raise to Heav’n thy pentive heart There dear friends may never part.
As John Hudson’s verse especially indicates, the topic taken up by the dead epitaphic speaker is often that of the dying body itself. In such instances, the gravestone provides a direct invitation to not only imagine the bodily condition of death, but also to imagine the corporeal realities—of disease, degeneration, pain—that can lead to death. They invite the reader, in other words, to construct their own illness narratives.
Other epitaphs—not addressed to “you,” “The Reader,” but nonetheless (I think) evocative of an especially embodied sympathy—indicate a similar historical preoccupation with the ill body. I’ve now come across at least six full or partial variations on this epitaph, which explicitly mentions medical professionals.
Affliction sore long time he bore; Physicians were in vain: God thought it best to give him rest, And eased him of his pain. Till God did please Death to me Seize / And ease me of my pain
(You may notice that a slight variation on the line, one using language present in other epitaphs, appears in “We Are Seven” as the Little Maid indicates that Jane “In bed she moaning lay, / Till God released her of her pain”)
This verse was in widespread use for over a century—it even made it to America—and was included in books of epitaphs published for clergy wishing to assist their mourning parishioners and for individuals designing stones for loved ones.
At a transitional moment in the history of medicine—the details of which I don’t have time to speak to today—such gravestones testify to a heightened anxiety about the human body and its vicissitudes, as well as the extent to which the body might be controlled by medicine—a set of embodied concerns that the sight of a gravestone might trigger in the Romantic viewer. It also speaks to what I think is a major historical shift in modes of subjectivity, as ideas of the self as a medical patient begin to influence and shape more general ideas of the self, and also discursive modes of biographical and autobiographical expression. (So it is highly suggestive but historically apt that so many final biographies, as it were, are not just of the self as a sick person, but as a medical patient.)
Before turning back to Wordsworth’s poetry, I wish to quickly foreground some aesthetic qualities of the 18th-century Lakeland gravestone. The gravestones from the first half of the 18th century tend to be strikingly simple. Towards the second half of the century one begins to see more ornate shapes and decorations, but nothing compared to what the gravestone will become by the mid-19th century.
By the end of the 18th-century, features of the natural world like shells, flowers, and feathers began to appear on gravestones, as did lamps and urns—nothing compared to the highly abstracted and symbolic adornments of Victorian gravestones. The most common decoration may at first glance seem to gesture more towards the immaterial than the material, but these angels, each of them singular and strange, are not ethereal beings. They are hybrid forms that call as much attention to the conditions of embodiment as to transcendence. Each is more an individual aesthetic object than a transferrable symbol. Like the textual address to “You,” “The Reader,” these angels look directly at us—or in some cases fail to do so, but are all the more palpable for their failure to connect.
What one generally sees in comparing the 18th century gravestone to one of a century later is an increase in its size—the thickness of the stone it, its height, its physical presence in space—as well as its ornateness. Later monuments feel imposing, like they are meant to last, and also feel increasingly conscious of themselves as explicitly aesthetic objects. If the earlier gravestone does more to reflect the condition of the human body—frail, capable of decay—these later memorials reveal the desire to preserve and protect human remains and commemoration against the forces of nature.
This gravestone in Cockermouth shows the evolution of font over the course of the eighteenth century. I highlight this because, by looking like handwriting rather than machine-produced typeface, the earlier fonts call attention to the medium of the gravestone itself, and also invoke the physical presence of the body that has engraved the stone. Similarly, somewhat frequent spelling and grammatical errors leave their traces of the hand that carved the stone—raising an interesting set of concerns related to transmission and memorialization that it would be fruitful to think about in conjunction with Culture of Lakeland Churchyards.
The body of John English who de- parted this life… Anno Domini 1745… And here allso is Intered the Bodyes of two of his Wifes And tow sisters. Afflictions Sore With patiens bore Physhens Proved in Vain Till God did please with death to Seas And freed her from her pain 1803
Typos required carving over, which makes the text not only material, but also aesthetically resonant with the bodies beneath: broken, decaying, layered, haphazard.
In “Rob Roy’s Grave” Wordsworth addresses the reader with a directive that is as literal as it is figurative:
Then clear the weeds from off his Grave And let us chaunt a passing stave In honour of that Hero Brave.
To reconstruct the narrative disclosed by the grave, one must visit it, must touch it—a suggestive concept in light of the reciprocal nature of touch, which Anne-Lise’s paper invoked a few days ago. In idealizing the rural graveyard, Wordsworth imagined graves that would inevitably be covered over. He imagined a kind of space would encourage accidents of and co-presence with nature that would inevitably lead to the effacement of text, the fragmentation of stone, subsuming, sliding, collapsing. These qualities of the rural graveyard also call to mind the vulnerability of the human body, and the condition of the human remains below. Rather than obstruct the production of narrative, however, I would argue that such accidents of nature provoke it, and require an ever more embodied participation in the space of the graveyard.
The gravestone that has no visible writing, that is completely covered in moss, that is shattered in two or on which only a single word remains visible is still a text. The stone still discloses a narrative: someone has died. And in the absence of details—a name (or names), a date of death and birth, a place of origin, a cause of death, an epitaph to represent the person’s life or death—the viewer is thereby yet more encouraged to participate in the process of narration. We are still given a narrative. It is just an incomplete one, and we may want wants to get ever closer to the text—to pick off bits of lichen, to lift up mats of moss, to dust off tree needles, to look from a different angle—to see what additional information the stone may disclose.
It is no mistake that Wordsworth chooses this set of images, of a grave-like site with a gravestone-like object to initiate the narrative of “The Thorn”—and it is telling that this image of complete growing-over is one that the poem idealizes.
All of the various aspects of the materiality of the graveyard that I have discussed—from its everydayness to the lack of embalming practices to bodily epitaphic modes to visual and typographical customs and accidents—combine to form a unique set of material circumstances that encourage us to foreground the graveyard as a geographical location in Wordsworth’s poetry, and the gravestone as an object. Doing so bears rich fruit.
I want to introduce a few beginnings at new readings of Wordsworth that might serve as provocations more than anything else. The first concerns the Boy of Winander passage from Book V of The Prelude, which we are in a much better position to read in the context of the Hawkshead graveyard the poet invokes.
By standing “mute” for “a full-half hour together,” Wordsworth describes an explicitly embodied sympathy as he remains as silent as the bodies that lieth below. That he still has the church “before [his] sight” indicates a continuing embodied connection to the spot. His juxtaposition of the words “died” and “slumbers” is highly evocative, and amplifies the latent tension between the material body and the immaterial soul. “Neighbourhood of graves” may in this context feel like more of a geographical description, a place in physical space, and we may read the lines about feeding upon soil in new ways that invoke images of bodily communion and the co-mingling of the living and the dead through the medium of the soil. At the very least these lines demonstrate the learning that happens in the graveyard, suggesting the gravestone itself may function as a kind of text.
We may similarly reconsider the importance of Wordsworth’s participation in The Prelude in reconstructing the mostly effaced and grown-over (presumed) gravesite of the executed murderer whose presence is indicated only by a name—what Wordsworth calls “monumental writing” visible only because by human hand “the grass is cleared away.” So, too, may we notice that the passage in which Wordsworth recounts his father’s death does not—or at least does not only—reach a kind of climax as he waits for the horses. Instead the critical turn, at least in terms of the incident’s capacity to chastise the poet, is the moment at which he physically accompanies his father’s corpse to the graveyard.
And finally, I would like to suggest that the so-called Lucy poem whose grammar has puzzled so many readers can be attributed to the simplest of graveyard circumstances: the epitaph that addresses “you,” “The Reader” and invites reflection by instructing, “So as I am, so shall you soon be.” “She dwelt among th’ untrodden ways,” concludes with the stanza
She lived unknown, and few could know When Lucy ceased to be; But she is in her Grave, and Oh! The difference to me.
So I leave you with what in Lyrical Ballads 1800 directly follows this expression of the intersubjective impact of the Grave, “A slumber did my spirit seal,” which I invite you to imagine as a narrator heeding the epitaphic call to sympathize with the slumbering dead and to articulate the nature of their embodied reality:
A slumber did my spirit seal; I had no human fears: She seemed a thing that could not feel The touch of earthly years. No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees; Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, With rocks, and stones, and trees. This boy was taken from his mates, and died 415 In childhood ere he was full ten years old. Fair are the woods, and beauteous is the spot, The vale where he was born; the churchyard hangs Upon a slope above the village school, And there, along that bank, when I have passed 420 At evening, I believe that oftentimes A full half-hour together I have stood Mute, looking at the grave in which he lies. Even now methinks I have before my sight That self-same village church: I see her sit— 425 The thron`ed lady spoken of erewhile— On her green hill, forgetful of this boy Who slumbers at her feet, forgetful too Of all her silent neighbourhood of graves, And listening only to the gladsome sounds 430 That, from the rural school ascending, play Beneath her and about her. May she long Behold a race of young ones like to those With whom I herded—easily, indeed, We might have fed upon a fatter soil 435 Of Arts and Letters, but be that forgiven— A race of real children, not too wise, Too learned, or too good, but wanton, fresh, And bandied up and down by love and hate; Fierce, moody, patient, venturous, modest, shy, 440 Mad at their sports like withered leaves in winds; Though doing wrong and suffering, and full oft Bending beneath our life’s mysterious weight Of pain and fear, yet still in happiness Not yielding to the happiest upon earth. 445 Ere I to school returned That dreary time, ere I had been ten days A dweller in my father’s house, he died, And I and my two brothers, orphans then, Followed his body to the grave. The event, 370 With all the sorrow which it brought, appeared A chastisement; and when I called to mind That day so lately past, when from the crag I looked in such anxiety of hope, With trite reflections of morality, 375 Yet in the deepest passion, I bowed low To God who thus corrected my desires. And afterwards the wind and sleety rain, And all the business of the elements, The single sheep, and the one blasted tree, 380 And the bleak music of that old stone wall, The noise of wood and water, and the mist Which on the line of each of those two roads Advanced in such indisputable shapes— All these were spectacles and sounds to which 385 I often would repair, and thence would drink As at a fountain.