Death in Romantic Poetry

My final paper in British Literature. I enjoyed the professor. The content sort of puts me to sleep. Too many poems. But here’s what I got out of it. An A paper:

Death in Romantic Poetry

Throughout literature, death is a commonly used topic. From the loss of soldiers in Wordsworth’s ballads to Beth’s heartbreaking illness in Little Women, it is a strong, emphatic, impactful subject matter. Death is a unique topic, in that there is no one particular view on death. Each person—each author—has their own view on death, dying, leaving this world and going onto the next, or maybe just decaying into the dust, cold and forgotten. There are many different views on death in Romantic literature especially. This is a time when society was exploring more, discovering more, and thinking more. New inventions were used. New types of writing became popular. And more concepts of life and death were pondered. In The Roots of Romanticism by Isaiah Berlin, it says that Romanticism was the most recently largest movement to transform the lives of the Western World (Berlin, 1). Duncan Wu’s Romanticism says that the word “Romantic” meant “fanciful”, “light”, and “inconsequential” (Wu, xxx). These words accurately display the mindset of the Romantic Period, and it sets the stage for Romantic literature. This does not necessarily mean that the poems during this period were “light and airy”. Rather, because it was such an inventive time, most poems sent messages of hope. Thus, death is portrayed in a unique way. The Romantic Era brought new and fascinating views on death.

Some Romantic poems focus on death’s appeal to people’s emotions and imagination. Because death has such a strong impact on the living, Romanticism sought to explore it. For example, William Wordsworth wrote a beautiful poem called “We are Seven” and it deals with a little girl who has lost two siblings to death. “Then did the little Maid reply/ ‘Seven boys and girls are we/ Two of us in the church-yard lie/ Beneath the church-yard tree’.” (Greenblatt, 278). Wordsworth portrays death as it appeals to the little girl’s emotions and imagination. Her view on death is imaginative, optimistic, and innocent. “You run about, my little Maid/ Your limbs they are alive/ If two are in the church-yard laid/ Then ye are only five…” Wordsworth says (Greenblatt, 279). The little girl proceeds to explain how the graves are green, they are side by side, and she eats, knits, and plays with them. “ ‘O Master! we are seven’ ”// “ ‘But they are dead; those two are dead/ Their spirits are in heaven!’… ‘Nay, we are seven!’” (Greenblatt, 279) This little maid is convinced her two past siblings are still alive. Little children have such active imaginations and their optimism is prime. “A simple child…What should it know of death?” begins this beautiful poem (Greenblatt, 278). It compels the reader to imagine death as just another form of being.

Another Romantic poem in which death appeals to emotion is a short, two-stanza rhyme by William Blake. Blake was known for his creativity with imagination (Frye, 153). “The Sick Rose” sparks the imagination as it compares a rose and a worm to a girl being stripped of her purity (Wu, 196). “O Rose, thou art sick/ the invisible worm/…Has found out thy bed/ Of crimson joy/ And his dark secret love/ Does thy life destroy.” Picturing a filthy worm penetrating a beautiful garden rose appeals to emotion as well, as it compels the reader to imagine an everyday rape. Many comparisons in poetry appeal to the imagination of the reader. “Does thy life destroy” (Wu, 196)—destruction. Death. How? It doesn’t say. We can only imagine.

The appeal to emotion and imagination is only one way the Romantic poets viewed death. Another common way was by emphasizing and expressing life. John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” truly has this technique. In the poem, the speaker knows he is aging and that death is coming, thus he expresses life and the beauty of the nature around him. “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! /No hungry generations tread thee down/ The voice I hear this passing night was heard/ In ancient days by emperor and clown” (Greenblatt, 927). Keats wrote this poem after his brother died of consumption (Wu, 1396). Yet he expresses the “tasting of the Flora”, a description of a gorgeous glass of wine, flowers, incense, pastoral eglantine…all these things emphasize the beauty of nature, and the narrator is ecstatic to be alive, experiencing all of it (Greenblatt, 928). “Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well…Fled is that music: –Do I wake or sleep?” (Greenblatt, 929)

Dorothy Wordsworth also expresses life in her poem about nearing death. Also a strong Romantic influence (Zimmerman, 113), “Thoughts on My Sick-Bed” was a personal poem to Dorothy as she herself was confined to a sick bed. She received the first spring flowers at her bedside, and this poem was what she wrote after she saw them in her room (Greenblatt, 417). “Couchant within this feeble frame/ Hath been enriched by kindred gifts/ That, undesired, unsought-for, came//…The violet betrayed by its noiseless breath,/ The daffodil dancing in the breeze/ The caroling thrush, on his naked perch/ Towering above the budding trees” (Greenblatt, 417). The imagery in this poem is fabulous, as Dorothy truly expresses the life around her, while her own fades away. This poem is full of parallelism, comparing her own state to the state of things around her. She even ends the poem with a sense of comparison: “No need of motion, or of strength/ Or even the breathing air/ I thought of Nature’s loveliest scenes/ And with Memory I was there” (Greenblatt, 418). It is easy to forget how truly beautiful and fascinating nature is. What better time to remember than while thinking about death?

Finally, the Romantic poets also portrayed death as a new beginning. They implied a new life—a beacon of hope—perhaps death wasn’t the end! Going back to William Blake, who wrote many poems about death (Frye, 154), we see his poem “The Chimney Sweeper” from The Songs of Innocence. This poem talks about two young chimney sweep boys, one has a dream where they and all the other chimney sweep boys died in “coffins of black”(Wu, 183). But that was not the end. “And by came an Angel who had a bright key/ And he open’d the coffins & set them all free/ Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run/ And wash in a river and shine in the Sun/…And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy/ He’d have God for his father & never what joy” (Wu, 183). This dream of the chimney sweep (Tom) implies a new life after the filthy, disgraceful life he led now. His dream was a vision of heaven. It was hope for him the next morning, as he was “happy & warm” (Wu, 183).

Percy Bysshe Shelley also uses death as a new beginning in his poem “Ode to the West Wind”.  The “West Wind” is the spirit of autumn, as it blows in and marks the death of summer (Greenblatt, 791). The poem implies new beginnings by referencing mythical gods of the afterlife. “Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere/ Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!” These two references are from Hinduism: Siva the Destroyer and Vishnu the Preserver (Greenblatt, 791). “Of some fierce Mænad, even from a dim verge…” A Mænad is a female worshipper of the Greek god of vegetation (Greenblatt, 792). So these references to gods imply a new beginning—a mythical start to autumn. Shelley concludes his poem by reminding his reader of the continuous cycle of seasons. “The trumpet of prophecy! O wind/ If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” (Greenblatt, 792) The Romantic Period was, indeed, heavily influenced by the Bible and Greek Mythology, both of which have severe afterlife beliefs—a new beginning for those right with God(s). (Berlin, 3-4)

Many other religious references imply new beginnings after death, even when the poem isn’t about death. For example, William Blake’s “The Lamb” has the Christian references of Jesus, pure and without sin, sacrificed for the sins of his people. “For he calls himself a Lamb/ He is meek & he is mild/ He became a little child/ I a child & thou a lamb/ We are called by his name” (Greenblatt, 121). Also from Blake, in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, “Energy is eternal delight/ Eternity is in love with the productions of time/ God only Acts and Is, in existing beings or Men” (Wu, 208). When Blake references eternity, of course he means the afterlife, especially since he proceeds to write about God living in Men. Consequently, poems can still reference death in a different and unique light even when the poem doesn’t revolve around death itself.

Death was a common and intriguing subject in the literary world during the 1700 and 1800s (Berlin, 1). The Romantic Era brought new and fascinating views on death. In literature, poets appealed to emotion and imagination, the expression of life, and new beginnings when writing about death. Romantic poets such as William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Percy Shelley truly capture death in these lights. The common topic of this time period is not only a creative one, but also thought-provoking and exciting.

Best regards,

JJ

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