Samantha Matthews’s book Poetical Remains: Poets’ Graves, Bodies, and Books in the Nineteenth Century, is part of a growing body of work on the afterlives of nineteenth-century poets. What distinguishes Matthews’s work is the focus on material culture (what she describes as “the emergent disciplines of book history and death studies,” iii), which encompasses the figurative and literal corpus of the poet. Poetical Remains is concerned with narratives of death: the fate of the corpse generates its own history whilst mortality exerts power over both the living poet and posthumous readings of their work. Out of the “cultural compost” of dying and dead poets grew the Victorian fixation with authorial death, which rendered the poet, as Matthews argues, peculiarly vulnerable to a host of parasites and also provided nourishment for their literary reputation (1).
The discussion of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Chapter 1 is one of the many highlights of this fascinating book. Matthews argues that the interment and subsequent exhumation of Rossetti’s early poems radically challenged Victorian conventions by blurring the boundaries between public mourning and private grief, personal tribute and publication (prominent themes throughout the study). This notorious and well-rehearsed act of desecration is here intriguingly related to displaced anxieties about creative death. Describing the unpublished poems as a “willed creative stillbirth” is one of a number of telling insights that lead into an authoritative discussion of Rossetti’s death and burial at Birchington-on-Sea (21). As Matthews demonstrates here and elsewhere in the study, burial-places are not “mere footnotes to poets’ biographies”; relics and remains were essential components of the literary biography, which fed the growing demand for death-bed memoirs and played a crucial part in determining the posthumous fortunes of the poet (27). Grave disturbance and the “memorial as fetish” are prominent themes of the next chapter, entitled “Resurrecting Burns,” which also incorporates discussions of Shakespeare, Milton, and an engaging reading of Swinburne’s poem “In Sepulcretis” (41).
Chapter 3 focuses on the poetess and the mapping of the “female textual body as not terminally dead, but tending always to demise” (77). Matthews argues that Mary Tighe’s life was retrospectively read through the “powerful biographical myth of the consumptive, early-dying poetess,” while her poetry was read as “posthumous remains” (82, 78). Promoting the image of the morbid poetess, Hemans’s poem “The Grave of a Poetess” both commemorates and appropriates Tighe. What Matthews refers to as Hemans’s “backdoor self-reflexivity” has unforeseen consequences as, in the manner of Shelley’s “Adonais,” the epitaph posthumously defines her own reputation (103). Hemans is hardly a passive victim of this myth, however; by challenging perceptions of Tighe in subsequent tributes, she actively engages with and reformulates the process. This chapter demonstrates an extensive knowledge of the subject and provides many careful, detailed readings of the poems; as such, it is a shame that female poets do not figure more prominently elsewhere in the book.
The intertwining of Keats’s and Shelley’s fates has long been a subject of critical interest. Chapter 4 adds to existing scholarship in this area through informative discussions of Roman regulations surrounding quarantine, the dialogue between Keats’s and Shelley’s epitaphs in the Protestant Cemetery, and the role played by Joseph Severn in the burial and immediate reception of both poets. Keats’s death and the importance accorded to his grave as “a romanticized but self-contained textual picture,” teeming with the organic life that the poet himself has often been denied in posthumous portraits, is sensitively depicted (122). Likewise, the scene of Shelley’s cremation, “now so layered in narrative that its original outlines are hard to discern,” and Mary Shelley’s influential role in her husband’s afterlife feature strongly (128). Matthews rightly comments that many early records of Shelley after death depersonalise the poet: yet the irony here, in respect of his treatment of Keats in “Adonais,” is not drawn out. The analysis of Trelawny’s recollection of Shelley’s corpse, which focuses on the disembodiment of a poet who is defined by absence, could equally be describing the silenced Keats who appears as “icy lips,” “that mouth” and “weak hands” in “Adonais” (lines 105, 101, 237).
The reception of the next poet’s death to be discussed in this study could not be more different from that of Keats and Shelley. Born more than two decades before these poets and outliving them by nearly three, by the time Wordsworth died in 1850 he was considered a relic who had “overstayed his welcome” (156). Unlike many other Romantic poets, Wordsworth had time to consider and plan for his posthumous reception; this included pre-empting the anticipated flurry of testimonies after his death with the publication of The Prelude, and the selection of, and subsequent consultation with, his biographer. Wordsworth even prefigured the simplicity of his pastoral grave in his famous “Essay upon Epitaphs.” Burial as a sign of literary greatness is a prominent theme of the following chapter on Thomas Hood. As with a number of the poets Matthews has previously dealt with, Hood’s final works become indicators of the author’s decline and death. The real strength of this chapter, however, is the use of historical and social context to chart the rise of the cemetery and the effective commercialisation of death. Matthews’s discussion of Hood reveals the “ironies and tensions generated by burying and commemorating a poet of democratic sympathies within an elite and symbolically prosaic ‘modern cemetery’” (190).
The final chapters deal with the deaths and funerals of the “twin stars” of the Victorian period: Browning and Tennyson. The former’s burial marks the move to transform Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey from a “motley company” into a “Victorian Valhalla” (224, 223). Chapter 7 also traces the romanticisation of Browning’s death-scene – a process repeated with Tennyson some three years later – and his assimilation into the role of national poet. The following chapter on Tennyson stresses the significance of In Memoriam as a cornerstone of the grieving process for the Victorians and highlights the extent to which this work determined responses to the poet’s death. Matthews re-emphasises here that death, and particularly the “spectacular” authorial death, becomes a text. Tennyson’s death and subsequent burial also herald a new era of “intense media scrutiny” (266). Matthews’s astute analysis of the coverage of Tennyson’s funeral, and the resulting “mass demonstration of sentiment,” indicates that more recent outpourings of national grief at funerals in Westminster Abbey are not so unprecedented after all (274).
Poetical Remains is an absorbing and, I would argue, essential study of changing attitudes to death, burial and the literary texts that became intrinsically related to these events during the nineteenth century. There is a slight tendency to over-write at times; and, whilst the close readings are uniformly excellent, with some illuminating readings of the illustrations, it becomes wearing when every longer quotation is “engaged” with. The introduction is overloaded with many, diverse issues, yet this also indicates the breadth of the subject under discussion and the impressive coverage of Matthews’s study. These remain minor criticisms of what is a meticulously researched and immaculately presented book.
She is a lecturer at Durham University. She is the author of Consuming Keats: Nineteenth-Century Representations in Art and Literature (2006), and has published a wide range of book chapters and journal articles on nineteenth-century literature and the visual arts. Her current project is “The Rise of the Byronic Hero in Fiction and on Film”. She is a co-director of the “Romantic Dialogues and Legacies Research Group” at Durham University.