Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's Mortal Remains

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's Mortal Remains

Article excerpt

April 23, 1850, the date of Wordsworth's death, struck late-Victorian commentators as peculiarly significant: not only was it St. George's Day, but also Shakespeare's birth- and death-day. Many contemporary newspaper and periodical reports, however, regarded Wordsworth's death as a non-event. On April 27, the day of the funeral, The Spectator wrote: "The death of a poet creates an official vacancy--the Laureate Wordsworth has departed. It is an historical fact, but not more; for he had long been withdrawn from the world of active life, and even his pen had forgotten its function" ("News of the Week" 385). The writer expresses no grief but suggests that the "death of the poet" be equated with the extinction of the creative faculty, which had occurred years before physiological death. For The Spectator, he has done little for some time and "his glory was on the shelves."

The public view that Wordsworth belonged to posterity originated long before his death, in the literary tourism, pilgrimage and relic-gathering of the 1830s. Stephen Gill cites various examples in Wordsworth and the Victorians--from Elizabeth Barrett's delight at receiving "a slip of green" from the Rydal Mount garden in 1841, to the "two thousand names" entered in the Visitors Book during the 1840s (Gill 10, 14). Wordsworth was canonised in his lifetime, as American senator Charles Sumner's 1838 letter vividly conveys: "My dear Hilliard, I have seen Wordsworth! How odd it seemed to knock at a neighbour's door, and inquire, 'Where does Mr. Wordsworth live?' Think of rapping at Westminster Abbey, and asking for Mr. Shakespeare, or Mr. Milton!" (Gill 14). Sumner's sense of Wordsworth's place amongst the immortals makes it incredible, not only that he has really "seen Wordsworth" but that "Mr. Wordsworth" is still "living" anywhere.

The early Victorian view of Wordsworth as both posthumous and immortal helps to account for the smooth transition in 1850 from a focus on the living Wordsworth of Rydal Mount to the dead Wordsworth of St. Oswald's churchyard, Grasmere. While authors' burial-places attracted considerable nineteenth-century attention, the popularity of Wordsworth's grave as a shrine for actual and imagined pilgrimage is exceptionally intense and persistent; this ostensibly "terminal" site has generated hundreds of textual and graphic responses and representations. (1) Far from regretting that the Poet Laureate had no public funeral or tomb in Poets' Corner, visitors celebrated what J. J. Murphy called in an 1855 poem "The Yews of Borrowdale" Wordsworth's "low but honoured grave"; and, like Murphy, they imagined future generations coming from all round the world to "call the place their spirits' fatherland" (Murphy 10, 27). Wordsworth's grave represented a new kind of spiritual goal in an increasingly sceptical and secular age.

Scholars have given scant attention to the strong presence of the grave in Wordsworth's post-1850 reception. Gill omits it from the list of factors that "began the process of transmitting an image of Wordsworth for posterity--the appearance of The Prelude, the publication of the official biography, and the erection of public monuments" (Gill 28-29). I argue that while enthusiasts pursued the poet's continuing "presence" via associated sites and objects--houses, landmarks and landscapes, personal effects, and especially manuscripts and published books--the grave uniquely embodied Wordsworth's final presence. For Victorian admirers the poet's corpse constituted a physical link to him.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's record of his visit to Rydal Mount and St. Oswald's in July, 1855, demonstrates the status of Wordsworth's grave as a shrine. At Rydal, Hawthorne narrowly avoided mistakenly "pilfer[ing] some flower or ivy-leaf ... to be kept as sacred memorials" from the neighbouring garden: "How queer, if we should have carried away ivy-leaves and tender recollections from this domicile of a respectable quaker" (Hawthorne 166). …

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