In a new book Mark Sandy explores how the Romantic poets treated grief, loss and death. Although they were writing two centuries ago, Romanticism, Memory, and Mourning suggests that their meditations speak to our contemporary anxieties today.
The philosopher and critic Slavoj Žižek recently proclaimed that we are “living in the end times.” Our era is preoccupied with the process and consequences of ageing. We mourn both for our pasts and futures as we now recognise that history is a continuation and record of loss. However, this spirit is not unique to our age.
Charlotte Smith, Felicia Hemans, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, John Clare
– Poets covered
Romantic meditations on grief were well aware of the complexity and strength of feelings surrounding the consolation or disconsolation through which they memorialise the imaginary and actual dead. Through “submitting heartfelt personal grief to those public conventions of ritual, code, and poetic language and form,” Sandy suggests, Romantic poets realise some consolation for the living. As he writes in the introduction:
Romantic poetry can be construed as a work of mourning that, in addressing the trauma of bereavement, moves through states of grief and anger to an acceptance (no matter how uncertainly) of a sense of loss in relation to a beloved object and the inscrutable event of death itself.
Romantic mourning finds expression in disparate poetic forms from ballads to elegies to odes. It manifests itself both as the spirit of its age, rooted in precise historical conditions, and as a proleptic power, of lasting transhistorical significance. Romantic meditations on grief and loss speak to our own contemporary anxieties about the inevitable, but unthinkable, event of death itself.