Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's Elegies for John Wordsworth

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's Elegies for John Wordsworth

Article excerpt

University College London

In the first of his "Essays Upon Epitaphs," Wordsworth argued that "transports of mind" and "quick turns of conflicting passion" would be out of place in an epitaph but "might. constitute the life and beauty of a funeral Oration or elegiac Poem" (Prose Works ii. 60). In the third essay, he made a similar distinction. Epitaphic composition invited "thoughts which should be fixed in language upon a sepulchral stone" in contrast to the "too poignant and transitory" feeling that "would be in its place in a Monody" (H. 83). Whereas epitaphs should be "liberated from that weakness and anguish of sorrow which is in nature transitory" (ii. 60), Wordsworth conceived of elegiac writing as a dramatisation of excessive, changeable and unreliable passions and perceptions, as a mode in which mistakes are likely to be made--mistakes he dramatised in his elegies on the death of his brother John. These poems entailed for him an implicit reconsideration of his own life and work and its insecure foundations, prompted by the way that elegy gives poets an occasion to think about the span of their careers. The shaky foundations are partly financial, since, as Mary Wordsworth wrote, the "loss of John is deeply connected to his business"; his death presented simultaneously a crisis of faith and means (1). They also include a discovery of fallibility both in the euphoric moods of Words-worth's own mind and in his confidence about the British maritime tradition. Through the implication of error, the poems find patterns of significance in the terrible event of John's death (2).

Wordsworth wrote three elegies for John between late May and July, 1805, "To the Daisy" ("Sweet Flower! belike one day to have"), "I only look'd for pain and grief", and "Distressful gill! this Book receives." It would be possible .to read the three as a sequence completed in May-June, 1806, by the "Elegiac Stanzas, 'Suggested by a Picture of Peek Castle, in a Storm, painted by Sir George Beaumont": cognates of such words as "hope," "fond," "consecrate," and "pride" recur in the -four poems, and the opening line of the second poem is sell-relerentially reprised in the third as "I look indeed for pain and grief' (37). However, Wordsworth never presented them in print in this way. "To the Daisy" was first published in the collection of 1815; "I only look'd for pain and grief' was published in revised form in 1842 as "Elegiac Verses in Memory of my Brother, John Wordsworth"; and "Distressful gift!," a manuscript in Mary Wordsworth's hand with William's corrections, remained unpublished until 1946 (Curtis 609-18). This. publication history suggests that at the time of their composition in May to July, 1805, they remained for him works of mourning in progress. "Elegiac Stanzas, Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle," (3) is the best known of Wordsworth's writings occasioned by John's death, but the other three poems have been little discussed. (4) They reimagine Wordsworth's capacity for hope and his conception of poetic labour from a less summative position than "Peele Castle"--from within as well as beyond "the fond delusion" described in that poem (29). They are further and distinct re-engagements with Wordsworth's sense of his poetic vocation and his audience; and the four poems together appear as dramatised stages in a process of elegiac mourning in which the last word is not the only word.

The occasion of elegy, Peter Sacks explains in The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (1985) is paradoxically productive for poetic careers. From "Lycidas" To "Adonais" and "Thyrsis," according to Sacks, major poets have found in elegy the occasion to consider the shape and imagine the finality of their own careers. In Sack's Freudian model of the genre, influence by "Mourning and Melancholia," the absence of the object of desire prompts the compensatory response of elegiac utterance--the work of art. Elegy articulates a renegotiation of loss and gain, in which the mourner's loss is partly redeemed by the artists's gain: by the artistic achievement embodied as the work of mourning It is then partly in the artist's interest that the dead be dead, and Sacks gives prominence to implications of rivalry and aggression in the elegist. …

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