Tennyson and Victorian Cultures of Death

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The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.

Tennyson, ‘Tithonus’ (written 1833, revised and published 1859)

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) is perhaps the archetypal Victorian poet. Appointed as Poet Laureate by Queen Victoria when Wordsworth died in 1850, he held the position for forty-two years, until his own death in 1892. The Queen was a great admirer of Tennyson’s writing: on the passing of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, she was given a copy of In Memoriam A.H.H. (1833-1849). She found the poem—a 133-canto mediation upon mortality, sorrow, and grief—a great solace, and it is reported that she told Tennyson: ‘Next to the Bible In Memoriam is my comfort’.1

Queen Victoria and her subjects set many of the trends we still follow in mourning the dead, including black mourning dress and funeral processions from the deceased’s home, to the church, and then the grave. Other Victorian practices seem distinctly creepy today: the collection of memento mori (objects which serve as reminders of death) from the body, and the crafting of jewellery from these physical tokens, and the practice of post-mortem photography, in which pictures—usually of infants or children—were taken after death. The bereaved could choose from a wide range of settings: from photographs taken of the dead person at rest in a coffin, to those with the corpse propped to stand up amongst the living bodies of its siblings, its eyes drawn on by hand in post-production.2

There are many reasons why death fascinated the Victorians so much. Families were typically large, and poorer people often lived in squalid conditions. In the era before antibiotics, something as simple as a tooth infection, or a cut, could be deadly, and in the cities, unsanitary and overpopulated slums led to frequent outbreaks of contagious disease. Furthermore, accidents in newly industrialised but poorly regulated workplaces were common, and treatment for complex diseases, like cancer and circulatory problems, were rudimentary to say the least. In London, the ‘Necropolis Railway’ trundled corpses and mourners twenty-three miles underground from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey for burial: the railway line was opened after the 1848-49 cholera outbreak, which overwhelmed the city’s cemeteries, and made it very clear that a new way of managing the dead had to be found.3

Tennyson himself has a clear position in this trajectory of narratives on death and dying. Many of his poems, from the aforementioned In Memoriam A.H.H., to the dramatic monologue ‘Tithonus’, to the short elegy ‘Crossing the Bar’, are interested in different aspects of the end of life. In this module, we will explore why it is that Tennyson is often seen as so representative of ‘The Victorians’, a vast and disparate group of people, and we will attempt to evaluate if this assessment has any degree of truth. We will also look to Victorian attitudes to dying and memorialisation, to Tennyson’s working of these two important things in his poetry, and finally, at how Tennyson’s poetry might both interact with, and enhance, cultural understandings of death in the years between 1837 and 1901.

1 Stephanie Forward, ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.: Composition and Reception’ https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/an-introduction-to-in-memoriam
2 Bethan Bell, Taken from life: The unsettling art of death photography http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-36389581
3 Amanda Ruggeri, ‘The Passenger Train Created to Carry the Dead’ http://www.bbc.com/autos/story/20161018-the-passenger-train-that-carried-the-dead

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