Translating the Dead: Bodies, Burials, and British Romanticism
thesisposted on 28.06.2013, 00:00 by Amy L. Gates
The Romantic period gave rise to a conception of the corpse as being not, or not only, the soul’s cast-off remains but a potential asset in itself for imagining human possibility and aiding progress. The corpses and graves portrayed in British Romantic literature resonate within debates carried out in the popular press and in Parliament concerning burial reform, anatomy reform, and the politically-charged translation of remains that viewed the corpse as potentially useful to the living. Reading the imaginary literature in this context encourages a reconsideration of the roles of memory and imagination in Romantic writing—especially as they pertain to remembering and memorializing the dead—as being forward-looking and socially and politically engaged. I argue that Romantic poets, novelists, and essayists locate the utility of dead bodies and burials in their capacity to act as channels for the imaginative retention, re-creation, and translation of the dead from past to future to benefit the individual and better society. Although many writers of the period share the tendency to view the corpse and its postmortem care as potentially useful, they explore various modes by which that use value might be realized. This project examines a number of those modes and the shifting relationships between the corporeal form and the imaginative literary response to it that transforms and translates the knowledge, character, and experiences of the dead to and for the future. The first chapter establishes the historical and critical context for the project. The second chapter demonstrates how the disappearance of the dead in Wordsworth’s poetry enables their imaginative re creation and memorial dispersal. The third chapter reveals how Byron invests the “dust” of the dead mingling into the soil of a particular place with regenerative potential. The fourth chapter traces Mary Shelley’s evolving understanding of how the living learn from the dead: from the detachment of sight to mutual engagement at burial sites. The fifth chapter addresses Hemans’s and Bentham’s creation of preserved effigial forms to supplement memory.