Mortality and Immortality in Romantic Poetry
Eternity and immortality are phrases to which it is impossible for us to annex any distinct ideas, and the more we attempt to explain them, the more we shall find ourselves involved in contradiction – Wiiliam Godwin, Political Injustice. The writers of the Romantic period found in immortality a topic which was not only of great political concern at the time, but would be of human interest indefinitely.
The topic leads to suggestion of differences in each writer’s ideas about the role of the poet in relation to both his work and his contemporaries; a dispute as to the future state of poetry; and highlights opposing ideas about the human condition. This essay intends to explore these differences of opinion amongst a key few of the Romantic writers who expressed their beliefs both through their creative and their scholarly works, focusing particularly on the writings of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and Byron.
It intends to seek differences between the first and second generation of romantics, and see how changes in political viewpoints affected considerations towards life and death. During the 18th Century, the ability of the writer to become immortalized through his work seems to become as important a reason for writing as the need for the poet to impulsively produce transcripts of powerful emotion. Wordsworth in his Ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood summarizes the creative issues of his life and art.
While some critics argue that the Ode confirms that Wordsworth believed the soul to be immortal, in the Fenwick note to the poem Wordsworth warns against a literal reading of the pre-existence stanzas. Instead, the poem is meant to be read in a poetic context, exclusive of religious frameworks. Wordsworth describes the childhood vision as ‘presumptive evidence’ of immortality: “It is far too shadowy a notion to be recommended to faith, as more than an element in out instincts of immortality. ”
In writing a letter to Catherine Clarkson in Decemer 1814, Wordsworth explains what he is illustrating in his poem: “The poem rests upon two recollections of childhood; on that of a splendour in the objects of sense which is passed away, and the other an indisposition to bend the law of death, as applying to our own particular case. A reader who has not had a vivid recollection of these feelings having existed in his mind in childhood cannot understand that poem. ” Wordsworth seems to be forwarding his theory that the instincts of childhood testify to the pre-existence of the soul.
However, Wordsworth did not hold these as necessarily true. Even from the title of the poem, we can see that the poem is meant to show us intimations, not intellectual intuitions. It becomes evident from this poem, that Wordsworth believed in some sort of higher being, or God, who exists outside our mortal realm, ‘where time and space are not. ’ In life, he was an increasingly orthodox Christian, and this poem shows that he believes that human instincts are given to us, as they are not chaotic, they link us to a definite scheme.
Wordsworth believed that in death, as well as in birth, childhood and life, there is place for poetry. He wrote in his Essay Upon Epitaphs, “To be born and to die are the two points in which all men feel themselves to be in absolute coincidence”. Wordsworth believed that the grave was a birthing place for language, and for writing. Wordsworth was a strong supporter of burial reform, and expressed his opinions in these essays, however the main focus was a critical evaluation of epitaphs, leading to a more poetic venture.
Keats seemed to sense that his death would come early, and requested that no name be on his tombstone, only the words, “Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ In Water”. This in itself holds suggestions about Keats’s thoughts of mortality. They are written in iambic pentameter, and the fact Keats did not wish his name engraved upon his tombstone might suggest that he does not wish to be remembered as simply a name. When writing in water, no trace would remain of what was written. Keats, perhaps, saw himself becoming part of the natural world, transcending into the flow of nature.
In the poem Ode to a Nightingale, Keats hints that this might be his wish through life as well as in death. He suggests that there might be such a thing as immortality, only it is accessible to those closer to nature, and not to man. In the seventh stanza of the poem, Keats writes, “Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird! ” The bird Keats is referring to has been interpreted in different ways. The first argument, put forward most famously by David Perkins, is a symbolic interpretation. In this reading, the Nightingale represents the poet, and the Nightingale’s ‘song’ equates to poetry.
This song, or poem, will last beyond the death of the bird, or the bard. However, if he nightingale’s song is a symbol for a poem, then the words “immortal bird” must refer to the poet as immortal. Keats does not wish to assert a human immortality with this poem, By the same token, the argument that immortality is only relative, and the words refer not to an individual bird as immortal but to the entire species of bird, who through reproduction has never died out, also makes reference to man as immortal, as the species of man is in the same position.
Neither of these arguments explain the nature of the birds immortality, as the poem explore the differences between the bird and the man; the immortal and the mortal. Keats wishes to understand why the bird is immortal and man is not. In his account of the poem’s composition, Charles Brown claims that a nightingale was singing outside whilst Keats sat down at his breakfast table to write. The bird caused Keats to move his chair ‘to the grass-plot under a plum-tree’ in which the bird was singing.
If this is the true account, then perhaps the bird Keats is writing about is not symbolic at all, but rather an actual bird in a natural environment. Keats refers to the bird as “Dryad”, which Earl Wasserman explains in The Finer Tone, is a creature whose being ‘is that of the tree it inhabits’. In stressing the naturalness of the nightingale, ‘thou among the leaves,’ Keats asserts how innocent the bird is of the time constantly moving towards death, which man is so aware of. The man seeks an ontological change, a union with the nightingale which will also allow him the pleasure of obliviousness which the bird possesses.
In the poem In Drear-Nighted December, obliviousness to death, is revealed as the sole determinant of a happy existence, as opposed to awareness of it, which leads to a woeful life. The ‘tree’ of the first stanza and the ‘brook’ of the second know nothing of the terminations of their life, just like the natural nightingale, whereas the ‘gentle girl and boy’, like the man, are painfully aware of it. Keats wishes to escape this world, where men sit “full of sorrow/And leden-eyed dispairs” and so he drinks wine, which allows him to.
The wine, being made of natural substances, allows the narrator to feel closer to nature as he becomes futher intoxicated. It has been “Cool’d for a long age in he deep delved earth/Tasing of flora and the country green”, and so connects the poet with the natural environment of the nightingale. Man is provided with an option to drift into the natural world, but only fleetingly; he will never be a permanent part of it like the bird, who retreats at the end of the poem to the next valley, never futher into or away from nature.
The immortality effect, as it has been described, or the need for an artist to produce work, be it poetry, novel, painting or statue, that will outlive him, seems of much greater importance than the reception that the work was given by the artist’s contemporaries. In his Biographica Literaria, Coleridge wrote that the men of ‘greatest genius’ write for the future: “In the inward assurance of permanent fame, they seem to have been either indifferent of resigned, with regard to immediate reputation.
Here he is referring to writers of the renaissance, such as Chaucer and Shakespeare, those whose works he might revere, and he too hopes that his name will be recalled with such admiration. Coleridge argues that this desire for posthumous recognition is something shared amongst all men: “to bear an immortal name, ever to fly through the mouths of men and in some part survive death – to whom do these things not offer some allurement? ” However, it could be argued that Coleridge sought fame amongst his contemporaries, as he also goes on to question the use of fame to a person who is dead.
Coleridge recognized, however, the fragility of fame throughout life, and it seems that the status of immortal through his works was never something Coleridge either desired or expected. Whilst an undergraduate in 1792, Coleridge wrote an essay entitled: “The Desire of Posthumous Fame is Unworthy a Wise Man. ” Within this essay he borrows somewhat extensively from Ciceros’s Tusclan Disputations to argue that ‘of all the errors in which men are steeped the desire for fame has most misled them. ’ Coleridge continues, “For if I wholly die, and consciousness is lost with life, what have I to do with glory?
But if there is life after death, and if I am to be carried with one leap, as it were, to the heavens, I shall scorn and despise it. Nay, more, call to mind the inconsistency of fame, how many once celebrated whose very names have not survived today; how many, too, of those who celebrated them have been taken form our midst. ” Coleridge expresses how he does not wish for fame as it is fleeting, and at the same time discourages people from creating fame around somebody. Other writers around this period, such as Young, Swift and Godwin also ridiculed the seeking of posterity.
In an essay written in 1797 entitled ‘Of Posthumous Fame’, Godwin argues that the idea of immortality found through the posterity of an artwork is little more than something to console authors who were neglected from fame in life. He argues that artistic value cannot be placed upon a work solely because it is recognized after the death of the artist, as the opinions of the receivers will always be divided, no matter at what time in the life of a work it is viewed or read. Yet Godwin too, could see the appeal of being remembered “with affection and esteem by ages yet unborn”.
It seems that the main concerns of the writers is not achieving a status of fame after death, but rather the identity connected with their name depicting an accurate representation of their character. Byron illustrates his feelings towards this idea in his epic poem Don Juan. In Canto I, Byron attempts to rhyme the name of the Egyptian King ‘Cheops’ with the word ‘hope’. This couplet vandalizes the name of the King, as the reader must pronounce it incorrectly to make it fit with the rhyme scheme implemented.
In doing this, Byron is exhibiting that once a person is dead, other people do not care about what that person might have done whilst alive, they will do as they choose. The Pharaoh Cheops erected the Great Pyramid of Giza, in order ‘To keep his memory whole, and mummy hid,’ yet whilst the monument still remains today, his body has vanished and so nothing remains of the man who built it. Byron agrees with Coleridge that fame is not something worth working towards, believing that when a person is dead, they may live on through their art, but the actual person is lost.
Despite himself being a poet, Byron seems to speak derogatively of the bards who “burn what they call their ‘midnight taper’/To have, when the original is dust/A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust. ” At the time he wrote Don Juan, Byron himself had recently had a bust made of his self, which he was not entirely happy with. It was perhaps that he did not wish to be remembered in the way this bust of him represented which led him to express his feelings towards immortality through fame in such a way. It was not only fame or writing that Byron felt would not last beyond the life of the man.
In Don Juan, the letter from Juan Julia is torn up in order to make lots. Juan’s tutor is elected to give his life and be eaten. In life, and in death he remained, a faithful Catholic, kissing his crucifix before he died. Byron believed that nothing, be it cherished love, or religion, can live on indefinitely. The letter symbolizes the writing of the poets, and shows how easily it can be torn up and forgotten. In Ozymandias, Shelley also shows a similar appreciation towards immortality of the artist through his relics.
Shelley illustrates that he finds the kings attempts at mortality are absurd; human attempts at building monuments to outlive our mortal lives do not work. However, the poem Ozymandias can also be read as a response to the works of Byron. H. J. Mozer argues that “Shelley’s statue of Ozymandias is something of a veiled portrait – or rather, a word-bust – of that early-nineteenth-century literary colossus know as ‘Byron,’”. Mozer uses the poet’s name to describe not only the writer himself, but also the heroes Byron wrote about, and the commercialized literary empire, which consisted largely of artistic representations of Byron.
Therefore, he argues, the poem Ozymandias is about Shelley prophesying the fall of the celebrity status of Byron. If we were to read this poem as Mozer believes it to be intended, it is not Byron who is not immortal, but rather his fame. In other poems, particularly Adonais and Lines to _____ (Sonnet to Byron) Shelley makes clear how much he feels in Byron’s shadow. Ozymandias also reflects Shelley’ sense of inferiority; however, Shelley has put Byron on such a pedestal, it seems impossible that he should not feel inferior. Shelley is not forewarning Byron, but rather reflecting his views on immortality.
As Andrew Bennett points out in ‘The Romantic Culture of Posterity’, Shelley ‘expressed acute anxiety and ambivalence over his contemporary and future reception’(164-65). Whilst alive, Shelley feels his reception is not comparable to that which Byron enjoys, however while other poets of the Romantic period felt that their ‘genius’ would be recognized in posterity, Shelley still doubted this would apply to his own work. The doubts about his own immortality come through from the narrator of the story within the poem: the ‘traveler from an antique land.
Describing the statue from a foreign angle creates even more distance between the knowledge about the once great man and the only way in which he can now be remembered, as a crumbling wreck on the ground. The caption on the pedestal proudly boasts, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! ” However, there is no longer anything to be seen, illustrating how Shelley believes his and other artist’s work will disappear along with their disintegrating bodies in death. Another argument is that the character of the King upon the pedestal is actually that of Wordsworth.
Shelley, in many of his other poems, such as Alastor and the sonnet, To Wordsworth, responds to the Wordsworthian views of immortality. In Alastor, a character who alludes to be Wordsworth goes to an ‘untimely tomb’ (50). According to Maureen N. McLane, this poem also chronics the death of a certain strain of poetic imagining, in Shelley’s assessment. Alastor is allegorical of the premature decay of genius, illustrating Shelley’s disappointment as Wordsworth renounced his political faiths, and his misery in doing so undermining his intellectual thinking.
Shelley quotes Wordsworth: “It is a woe ‘too deep for tears’, when all/Is reft at once…” (713) from Wordsworth’s Ode to Immortality: “To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that so often lie too deep for tears (204-205). Shelley claims, “all is reft at once”, referring to Wordsworth’s hopes regarding the revolution. Shelley assumes that the failure of the poet to support and the failure of the revolution are linked, as he makes reference to both Napolean and the Revolution in the poem.
The poem ends with the line ‘Birth and the grave, that are not as they were. ’ (720) Shelley identifies with immortality not as an idea on its own, but rather as one which requires both birth and death, as without birth there is no life, and without death there is no mortality in order to allow for its opposite; immortality. Therefore, the poem Ozymandias might also be referring to the crumbling of the man who once stood for the rights of the country, such as a king, or a poet.
It has become apparent that there are great distinctions in the ideas of the Romantic writers surrounding the theme of immortality, creating a clear divide between the first and second-generation poets. Whilst Wordsworth and Keats believe in the possibility that they themselves would become immortal through the reproduction and reciting of their works, Shelley and Byron strongly reject this idea, recognizing the fragility surrounding not only their physical selves, but also their fame and their works. This seems to make irrelevant the original observation that the Romantic poets were only interested in writing for the future.
Approximately two hundred years on from the Romantic period, we are still able to access and read the works of these artists, and indeed are encouraged to study them. In doing this, it seems that they have, up until now achieved an immortal status. However, not all writings and authors will have survived the ages, meaning that immortality is not something accessible by all men. It seems just the elite few, who although they might believe they speak for all men, cannot represent them in their immortal role.
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