Polly Atkin

‘A kind of second life’: Narrating the Wordsworthian Grave

Page Guide:

In May 1813 the Wordsworths left their last home at Grasmere, the old rectory, and made the move to Rydal, just as, two hundred years on, this conference has. The Wordsworths’ move was precipitated by the death of William and Mary’s three-year-old daughter Catherine on June 4th 1812, followed by the death of their six-and-a-half-year-old son Thomas on December 1st. In a letter to Lord Londsdale William makes clear the anguish which living in direct sight of the burial site is causing them:

the Parsonage of Grasmere […] stands close by the churchyard, and I have found it absolutely necessary that we should quit a place which, by recalling to our minds at every moment the losses we have sustained in the course of the last year, would grievously retard our progress toward that tranquillity which it is our duty to aim at

Lord Lonsdale helped remove the family from the heavy weight of co-presence at the old Rectory, which William terms the ‘heaviness of this Dwelling’.1 Although in January, Dorothy ‘cannot yet bear to visit [Thomas’] grave’, in May as they move she writes of the churchyard as a source of comfort, as a reminder of a continual co-presence of the dead:

[…] my inner thoughts will go back to Grasmere – I was the last person who left the house yesterday evening. It seemed as quiet as the grave; and the very church-yard, where our darlings lie, when I gave it a last look, seemed to cheer my thoughts. There I could think of life and immortality. The house only reminded me of desolate gloom, emptiness, and cheerless silence.

The house itself here swaps places with the churchyard – the occupied burial site is a cheerful place of ‘life and immortality’, where as the emptied house is ‘quite as the grave’.

These extracts highlight the paradoxes of the experiential reality of the ‘one great society’ of ‘the noble living and the noble dead’ described in the Prelude, and which appears in various forms in so many of Wordsworth’s poems and prose works.1 As phrased in ‘The Convention of Cintra’, for Wordsworth there is a kind of social contract, ‘a spiritual community binding together the living and the dead.’ Laura Dabundo argues that ‘that community of the living and the dead [was] of vital interest […] since his earliest writings’, inherently linked to what she terms the ‘inexorable’ ‘drive toward community in English Romanticism’. As Kurt Fosso asserts, ‘Wordsworth’s poetry repeatedly shows how we the living remain, even despite ourselves, bound together by the dead’. Fosso argues that Wordsworth’s co-present dead ground the living in a locality: that they are ‘an integral part of their history, affections, and environment.’ This paper seeks to reconsider the Wordsworthian grave as simultaneously location and dis-location; absence and co-presence, exploring the role of poetry as memorial work.

Dead Man’s Homes and Fireside Talk

The title of this paper comes from ‘The Brothers’, a poem in which the dead are afforded ‘a kind of second life’ through a continued narrative presence in the community. ‘The Brothers’ is deeply concerned with burial culture and memorial tradition. Drawing on a 1799 visit to Ennerdale, its narrative is told through a conversation in Ennerdale Churchyard between the local Priest and Leonard Ewbank, returned from years at sea. Leonard, believed long dead by the community, discovers his brother James is dead, buried under a traditionally unmarked ‘heap of turf’.

The Priest famously assumes Leonard is a tourist, suggesting graveyards were a common destination for visitors even in 1800. Leonard plays the part, questioning the lack of memorial stones, which ‘seems […] To say that you are heedless of the past.’ He posits that where there is

[…] neither head nor foot-stone, plate of brass,
	Cross-bones or skull, type of our earthly state
	Nor emblem of our hopes: the dead man’s home
	Is but a fellow to that pasture field.

The priest replies:

We have no need of names and epitaphs,
We talk about the dead by our fire-sides.

He claims that by doing so, they have ‘no need of symbols’, suggesting what they have is something more substantial, more palpable. This elicits Leonard’s resonant statement: ‘Your dalesmen, then, do in each other’s thoughts|Possess a kind of second life’.

Oral storytelling or communal remembering here acts as more than a static epitaph carved in stone: it enables not remembrance or commemoration of something past, but a continuation of the dead in the lives of the living: a ‘kind of second life’. This notion of ‘Fireside talk’ reoccurs throughout Wordsworth’s work in different formulations, which I’ll touch on later. Jonathon Bate of course argues that for Wordsworth all written poetry is inherently epitaphic. This is commonly evidenced by a dichotomy between Wordsworth’s depiction of nature as ‘like a book’ able to preserve memory, with certain character’s inability to read this book. The classic example of this lies in the unmarked graves of ‘The Brothers’, which seem to prove that only those dislocated from place need the glossing of local history that gravestones effect, to tell the difference between ‘field’ and ‘dead man’s home’.

If we are taking it that Ennerdale in 1799 presents Wordsworth with a model of an ideal rural graveyard – one with ‘neither epitaph nor monument,|Tomb-stone nor name, only the turf we tread,|And a few natural graves’ – what does this do to an idea of poetry as linked to epitaph?5 Is poetry equally redundant to those who really dwell in place? Or can the poem be seen as functioning more like the fireside talk than the absent epitaphs? As something that does not merely commemorate, but keeps alive those ‘things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed’, as stated in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1802). Fosso posists that the fireside talk itself is ‘supra-epitaphic’, and essentially ‘the living circulat[ing] oral epitaphs’ to promote communion. I’m not quite sure this is quite what is happening, or that Fosso hasn’t fallen into the same trap as the speaker of ‘We are Seven’ in predicating the dead actually being ‘dead’ in a conventional sense here. The poem is very clear – the dead have ‘a kind of second life’ in the talk – it’s not epitaphic, it’s regenerative. The passing on of memories, whether in the form of localised oral storytelling or internationally published poetry, is central to Wordsworth’s conception of an ongoing relationship between the noble living and noble dead exactly because it keeps them present, rather than presenting their absence, which is the role of eptiaph. My wider work is concerned with the role of poetry in making place, arguing for a wider understanding of Wordsworth’s ‘local’ poetry as ecopoietic. What kind of place, or places, then, are being made and remade for the readers of this grave poetry? One in which you have to dwell deeply in place to be able to read the book of the earth? One in which you are deeply connected and involved with the history and environment of the locality? Or one in which poetry itself can make than connection?

We were curious to see how Ennerdale today reflects this idealised position, and discovered three stones which seem to have been erected in the decades before Wordsworth and Coleridge visited. It was not in reality then, in 1799, the entirely monument-less field of Wordsworth’s poem, but comparatively close to it. In the 1800 Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth attached an explanatory note:

There is not any thing more worthy of remark in the manners of the inhabitants of these mountains, than the tranquillity […] with which they think and talk upon the subject of death. Some of the country church-yards, as here described, do not contain a single tomb-stone, and most of them have a very small number.

Although set in Ennerdale, Wordsworth is trying to capture in ‘The Brothers’ a wider local phenomenon, concerning a particular attitude of the living towards both death and memorialisation. Moreover, he is trying to capture a sense of this tradition shifting. Leonard, like the Wordsworths in 1813, now sees a once happy home as ‘a place in which he could not bear to live’, and returns to sea, homeless forever.1 Alan Bewell’s research on the sheer number of soldiers or sailors returning deeply changed by their time abroad, suggests Leonard unhoming was a common product of the society of the time. Our grave research only confirmed this. St. Michael’s Churchyard, Lamplugh (the adjoining vale to Ennerdale) has an unusally strong epitaphic tradition. These memorials testify to the commonality of deaths abroad of the far-flung ‘younger sons’ of the parish. [show egs]. We found other deaths at sea in similar village churchyards, including Loweswater, Hawkshead and Cockermouth. The very existence of these memorials shows not only the changing living social conditions of the time, but a changing attitude towards commemoration of the dead, possibly for those exact reasons.

Grasmere as Grave

Wordsworth’s descriptions of Grasmere’s ‘church-yard amongst the mountains’ in Book 6 of the ‘Excursion’ bear a strong resemblance to those in ‘The Brothers’:

Green is the Churchyard, beautiful and green,
A heaving surface, almost wholly free           
From interruption of sepulchral stones,           
And mantled o'er with aboriginal turf           
And everlasting flowers. These Dalesmen trust                        
The lingering gleam of their departed lives           
To oral record, and the silent heart;           
Depositories faithful and more kind           
Than fondest epitaph: for, if those fail,           
What boots the sculptured tomb? And who can blame,           
Who rather would not envy, men that feel           
This mutual confidence […]1

It similarly forgoes stones for ‘oral record’, or fireside talk. Mary Armitt describes Grasmere churchyard historically as ‘the grassy space, with its ever-increasing mounds.’1 We found no evidence of memorial stones of any kind before the early nineteenth century, with only a small number of plaques within the church from the late eighteenth. Catherine and Thomas Wordsworth’s were amongst the earlier stones to be erected in the Church Yard itself; the beginning of a swathe of memorialisation which, by the time William and Mary joined them, would leave the grassy space quite altered. Grasmere in Wordsworth’s earlier memories then was as much as Ennerdale, one of those ‘country church-yards [with only a] very small number’ of stones. Many bodies were buried not only in unmarked graves, but within the church itself. Armitt notes how: ‘the earthen floor was often broken up for the burial of parishioners’, meaning that the many activities that took place within the church and churchyard were invariably performed in the presence of the familiar dead. She adds: ‘The soil beneath the church is thus literally sown with bones.

Armitt notes that historically ‘fairs, markets, sports and wrestlings […] took place within [the churchyard’s] enclosing walls’. During the Wordsworths’ residence, Grasmere churchyard doubled as the school-yard to the adjoining tiny village school, a common situation. Dorothy details how directly before Catherine’s death she ‘had been […] with Willy and [Catherine] in the Churchyard and they had run races and played on the very ground where now she lies.’ The resonance doubles after Thomas’ death:

Wherever we look we are reminded of some pretty action of those innocent Children – especially Thomas whose life latterly has been connected with the church-yard in the most affecting manner – there he played daily amongst his schoolfellows, and daily tripped through it to school.

In a letter to Southey, William reveals fears this everyday closeness to death may have affected somehow Thomas’ ability to fight his fatal illness as ‘he was of an age to have thought much upon death a subject to which his mind was daily led by the grave of his Sister.’

Just as Leonard Ewbank sees Ennerdale’s unmarked graves as ‘dead men’s homes’, Dorothy figures Grasmere after 1812 as ‘the home of the dead Children.’ As already suggested, this closeness of death to daily life, rather than providing the continuity, comfort and community support suggested in the poems, proves painful. Dorothy writes that ‘the very air of the place […] and above all the view of that school, our darling’s daily pride and joy – that church-yard his playground – all oppressed us and do continue to oppress us with unutterable sadness.’ For Mary especially, it has become ‘most hard to think upon his grave without the anguish of regret’.4 In fact, Dorothy lists only one objection to the move to Rydal Mount – ‘that from the garden we shall view the Grasmere hills’. This attitude seems in opposition to those ideas expressed in William’s poetry, although it is inferred in the letters that the move is mostly for the sake of ‘Mary’s Mind’, for whom, Dorothy writes ‘it is having those objects continually present in which the Children used to delight – above all the school and the Church-yard which is the greatest evil’. To be removed entirely would be worse still. Dorothy states clearly that whilst continual co-presence is too much to bear, the family ‘should wish to be within a walk of Grasmere – and should wish to keep up that bond betwixt the living and the dead by going weekly to the parish church besides which their bodies are laid’.6 This is less living with the dead, than paying a weekly visit. Several letters from both Dorothy and William reveal clear plans for the rest of the family to eventually return home to Grasmere to be with them: ‘Brother and Sister now rest side [by side] in Grasmere Churchyard where we hope that our dust will one day mingle with theirs.’

Grasmere became for the Wordsworths a grave-in-waiting. William repeatedly refers to it as almost excessively meaningful, a tyrannical narrator ‘forc[ing] upon us at every moment so many memorials’ and giving ‘too many distressful Memorials’. As I’ve argued elsewhere, however, the imagery of the grave is central to Wordsworth’s home at Grasmere from its beginning. ‘Home at Grasmere’, for example, opens with the poet as a boy imaging not only living in the vale, but dying there:

“What happy fortune were it here to live!
And if I thought of dying, if a thought
Of mortal separation could come in
With paradise before me, here to die.”

For Hartman it is unclear ‘whether the image of a womb or a grave predominates’ in ‘Home at Grasmere’.1 Wordsworth develops his own ‘ecolect’ for Grasmere. The vale is variously a bower, a shelter, a nook, a centre, but also a termination, a retreat, a recess, a temple, a holy place, deep, secluded, a hallowed spot. Echoes of the grave or subterranean internment abound, even in the loving ‘Embrace me then ye hills, and close me in!’. Grasmere is

 […] this deep vale, [heaven]’s earthly counterpart,
	By which and under which we are enclosed
	To breathe in peace […]’. (l.853-855)

These images of the grave or the dead in Grasmere reoccur throughout his writing. Benjamin the Waggoner, for example, passing the poet’s home cannot say if the inhabitants ‘be alive or dead’: the home, gravelike, is ‘wondrous cold’.1 In those fundamental homing works ‘The Poems on the Naming of Places’, the vital places are linked to the grave and the Ennerdalian act of localised ‘fireside’ narration.
In ‘To Joanna’ the poet tells of how:

In memory of affection old and true,
I chiselled out in those rude characters
Joanna’s name deep in the living stone:-
And I, and all who dwell by my fireside,
Have called the lovely rock, JOANNA’S ROCK.

The transitory moment of the poem has become fixed in stone.1 Like a gravestone, the rock does not stand in for Joanna, as much as evoke her absence, belonging less to her than to those who remain: ‘all those who dwell by [the speaker’s] fireside’; complicit not only in performing the memorial inscription but in keeping the process alive in continual narration.2 The absent Joanna, through a slip of syntax and association, seems not only not to dwell there anymore, but not to dwell at all.

These blurred memorial/gravestone images are explicit in the closing wish of ‘It was an April Morning’ that local shepherds – ie. the Grasmere equivalents of the Ewbanks of Ennerdale –

Years after we are gone and in our graves,
May call [this wild place] by the name of Emma’s dell.1

Here there is no marking of the landscape, other than that done by the pair’s feet. Only the poem can act as the memorial, or epitaph.1 Where these poems become interesting to my thinking here is not so much in the events or feelings they record, but in the form they record them in. As Bate notes these ‘profound[ly] double’ poems are both epitaphic and regenerative.2Although they display different methodologies, each of the poems both is an act of memorialisation (in the poiesis) and records one (in the naming), then disseminates it in the publication. These namings now belong not to a fireside community, or even a few local shepherds, but to any one who picks up the right book. If these poems are epitaphic, their wide publication resists weathering. Publication negates the fact that Joanna’s inscription never took place. In the poem, the memorial work continues to happen every time it is read. That these homing poems are so concerned with the grave, and with memorial work signals to me that to William, home and grave are intrinsically intertwined even before 1812. The sad events of that year only tip the balance from ‘crude omphalos’ to ‘last retreat’.

Visiting Burns

Wordsworth’s visit to Robert Burn’s Grave in 1803 sheds light on the paradoxical nature of his attitude towards memorialisation: on the one hand praising unmarked graves which seem to prove that vital connection to place ‘has no need of names and epitaphs’, on the other hand, himself participating in the ‘ancient practice of the “conversation with the dead”’ which Harald Hendrix identifies as the origins of literary tourism, most often involving visiting a predecessor’s grave.

When Dorothy, William and Coleridge visited it in 1803 Burns’ grave was unmarked and unremarkable. Dorothy records ‘He lies at a corner of the churchyard […] There is no stone to mark the spot’.1 This is not the norm in Dumfries at this time: the guide points out another ‘pompous monument’, and ‘the churchyard is full of grave-stones and expensive monuments in all sorts of fantastic shapes—obelisk-wise, pillar-wise, etc.’2 The Wordsworth party recite Burns’ poetry over his grave.3 They are struck by the view of the Lake District from Burns Country: Burns’ poetry, the landscape, the physical presence of the corpse, and the feeling of neighbourliness become interlinked in their minds. Dorothy writes:

we talked of Burns, and of the prospect he must have had, perhaps from his own door, of Skiddaw and his companions […] we might have been personally known to each other, and he have looked upon those objects with more pleasure for our sakes.’

The Wordsworth party come to feel themselves personally involved with the dead poet through this proximity, and through the act of visiting his home and grave. In effect, they imagine themselves into his fireside community: keeping him alive in their minds through what is ostensibly literary tourism reconfigured as ‘mutual confidence’

These are the ideas Wordsworth returns to in his poems on the grave of Burns. Burns’ grave in these poems is a ‘grave grass-grown’; a ‘low|and silent grave’; ‘the mould where Burns is laid’.1 There are clear resonances with the description of the graves in ‘The Brothers’ and ‘The Excursion’. Burns, we are told, showed the younger poet how to write based on ‘humble truth’. His grave thus takes on greater significance to the poet ‘more deeply grieved’ than the ‘thousands’ of mourners. Moreover, the geographical proximity allow the poet to state ‘Neighbours we were, and loving friends|We might have been’, imagining not only a meeting of hearts and minds, but a situation ‘where the main fibres are entwined’ of the living Wordsworth and dead Burns’ minds and hearts. His relationship with his dead mentor is depicted thus not only transcending death, but as thoroughly embodied. Importantly, it is also social and communal, as outlined in the second poem: ‘over the grave of Burns we hung|in social grief’. In this line not only the idea of communing with the dead is highlighted, but the importance of communal mourning, remembering, narrating. The poems are the epitaphs that were missing from the grave, and perform their task all the better for not being carved in stone or fixed in time and place: as poems, they operate in a shadowy ground between fireside talk and memorial inscription.

To close I want to bring in another image of Catherine Wordsworth’s grave in Grasmere, this time in De Quincey’s ‘Dream of Easter Sunday’. This dream with its enfolding of places and times makes an uncanny replica of Grasmere churchyard with ‘cattle tranquilly reposing upon the verdant graves, and particularly round about the grave of a child whom I had tenderly loved’.1 This Grasmere is eerily empty of animal life except for in the ‘green churchyard’ where the cattle are not only living but presumably grazing on those ‘verdant graves’. Kate Wordsworth and the other Grasmere dead here are pushing up new growth that is feeding the only live things present. De Quincey makes it clear that the cattle are transplanted from memory of the summer of 1812: ‘just as I had really beheld them, a little before sun-rise in the same summer, when that child died.’ This allows us to see, from a different angle, how the churchyard really was a place of life as well as death, a place of nurture as well as decomposition. What we found was that these echoes remain today in the irrepressible animal life of graveyards: no cows actually on the graves, but certainly sheep, birds, rabbits, and all manner of bugs, worms, mosses snails – all grazing on the less than eternal stones. Ecologically, the graveyard certainly is part of the local system. Wordsworth, ever the poet of natural observation, knew this better than any of us.

Links to Relevant Poems, Essays, Journals, etc:


Armitt, Mary L., et al. The Church of Grasmere: A History. Project Gutenberg, 1911.

Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. Routledge, 2014.

Dabundo, Laura. “A Marriage of True Minds: The Community of Faith in Wordsworth and Austen.” The Wordsworth Circle, vol. 35, no. 2, 2004, pp. 69–72., https://doi.org/10.1086/twc24044968.

Fosso, Kurt. Buried Communities Wordsworth and the Bonds of Mourning. State University of New York Press, 2004.

Hartman, Geoffrey. Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787-1814. Yale University Press, 2015.

Hendrix, Harald. “From Early Modern to Romantic Literary Tourism: A Diachronical Perspective.” Literary Tourism and Nineteenth- Century Culture, 2009, pp. 13–24., https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230234109_2.

Kerrigan, John, and Jonathan Wordsworth. Wordsworth and the Worth of Words. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

McCracken, David. Wordsworth and the Lake District: A Guide to the Poems and Their Places. Oxford Univ. Press, 1990.

Simpson, Rawnsley Eleanor Foster. Grasmere in Wordsworth’s Time. T. Wilson, 1950.

Westover, P. Necromanticism: Traveling to Meet the Dead 1750 -1860. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Wordsworth, Dorothy, and J. C. Shairp. Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, AD 1803. Thin, 1974.

Wordsworth, William, and Beth Darlington. Home at Grasmere: Part First, Book First of ‘The Recluse’. Cornell University Press, 1989.

Wordsworth, William, and Paul F. Betz. Benjamin the Waggoner. Cornell University Press, 1988.

Wordsworth, William, et al. Lyrical Ballads, and Other Poems, 1797-1800, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1996.

Wordsworth, William, et al. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Middle Years. Clarendon Press, 1969.

Wordsworth, William, et al. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. Clarendon Press, 1972.

Wordsworth, William, et al. The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Clarendon Press, 1974.

Wordsworth, William. Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850. W.W. Norton and Company, 1979.