«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
All of these poems also appeal to readers' value of dialogic connection with others, even by showing how those connections may be dangerously inescapable, as Keats and Rossetti indicate. These poems emphasize memory as an essential means of preserving relationships, even when such preservation may be painful. This pain, these poems suggest, may be part of subjectivity to the extent that subjectivity is rooted in a responsible relationship to and for the other. They evoke emotions and dialogic experience that remind us of how our ability "to be able" informs our Levinasian capacity for responsible dialogue (Levinas, "Time" 42).
Personal and Poetic Encounters with Loss Each of these poets, much like Dickinson and Frost, had their share, if not more, of loss. I note some of their encounters with loss here not to argue that any of these poems necessarily represents a poet's direct response to a particular event or person, but rather to suggest that their familiarity with loss likely shaped their poetic imaginations.
Like John Carey's investigation into "the structure of [Donne's] imagination" via biographical considerations, I suggest that these poets' actual experiences of loss may likely have shaped, at least indirectly, the ways in which they imagined fictive losses (10). To that extent, we may view these poems as responding at least indirectly to their authors' encounters with loss.
In her article "Reading [Out] Biography in 'A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,'" Judith Scherer Herz calls into question the biographical exigence for Donne's poem. This exigence has been promoted by Izaak Walton's claim "that this poem was written to Donne's wife when Donne went to the Continent in 1611," which is endorsed in a footnote in The Norton Anthology of Poetry (Ferguson, Salter, and Stallworthy 275). Walton's account has enduringly shaped interpretations of Donne's poem, as Herz acknowledges: "To a certain degree all readings of the poem have to position themselves in relation to this narrative" of Walton's whether they "reject it" or not based on the kind of evidence she uses to convincingly undermine Walton's credibility (138).
Despite the uncertainty about whether Donne wrote the poem for his wife, Herz affirms that Donne was separated from his wife for months during his journey between 1611 and 1612, and that "his child died two months... after his departure" (137-38).
Donne may have felt his departure to be less of a loss and more of a welcome reprieve, as John Carey clarifies, from the pressures of poverty and of a fast-growing family— increasing at a rate of "one child per year"—cramped in a country cottage made traveling a welcome reprieve from the isolation and responsibility of family life (73). So overwhelmed by family obligations and "cut off from the civilized world in the country," Donne "became depressed and ill, and was tempted at times to do away with himself," according to Carey (73). Given Donne's depressive, suicidal feelings, "[a] death in the family would, in a sense, have been a relief, if it were not for the funeral expenses involved" (Carey 73). His family's dismal economic situation must have been quite grim indeed for the ambitious Donne, who coveted a "public career" (Carey 71).
Donne's career prospects were abruptly cut short when his benefactor, Sir Thomas Egerton, discovered Donne's "secret marriage" to Ann More in 1601 (Carey 71).
Donne escaped to Europe for twelve months from 1605-1606, and again to the Continent on a nine-month trip from 1611-1612 (75-76). The familial losses were likely eclipsed by the even more dire circumstances of his family's poverty and isolation. In light of this context, it seems quite plausible that Donne might contemplate the kind of "ambivalent feeling" that Erlich reads in the speaker of "Forbidding Mourning," a speaker who "both loves and hates the woman to whom he is speaking" (361-62). This apparent devaluation of the death of his child and his separation from his wife may seem to us to be a kind of loss in and of itself—a loss of an ability to appreciate fully the presences of these individuals.
According to Carey, loss defines Donne's poetic and philosophical attitudes: "a sense of separation, together with a desire to overcome it, are contending and controlling features in Donne's thought all his life" (61). We may recognize the "divisive influence" of these "features" in the contrast between "Forbidding Mourning's" emphasis on "union" and Donne's denial "of the possibility of any such union" in poems like "Love's Alchymie" –although Erlich invites us to recognize the tension between both features in "Forbidding Mourning" (Carey 61). Carey locates the origins for Donne's affinity for the conflict between union and separation in the gruesome conflicts between the Anglican and Catholic churches that culminated during Donne's childhood. Carey's first chapter details the political persecution of Catholics in Anglican England, who had severely limited civil rights and were subject to fines, torture, and execution for disobeying "antiCatholic legislation" that dominated late-sixteenth-century England (16). Carey concludes that, as a member of a prominent Catholic family, "Donne was born into terror, and formed by it" (18).
Although Donne ultimately rejected his Catholic faith, Carey emphasizes Donne's liminal position between a Catholic community that "had claimed his earliest allegiance" and "the body politic" to which he struggled to belong (61). Religious strife dominated Donne's childhood, and in combination with the death of his father when he was four years old, may have contributed to Donne's "profound anxiety about the permanence of human relationships"—anxiety that may have exacerbated his stress about his own family later on (Carey 15, 37). Donne's keen sense of loss also seems to inform "Forbidding Mourning" in that, as Matthias Bauer argues, "the language of the poem... reflects and realizes its theme of unity-in-separation" (97). Insofar as "Forbidding Mourning" strives to overcome separation, it seems both to respond to loss and to aim for identification, the kind of connection so important in Burke's rhetorical theory. Donne's representations of unity and separation clarify why connections with others may seem especially valuable in situations of loss.
In Christina Rossetti: A Writer's Life, Jan Marsh calls "Remember" "an accomplished and justly famous valediction forbidding mourning," associating Rossetti's poem with Donne's (100). Marsh explains that Rossetti wrote "Remember" in July of 1849 after a bout of "anxiety" during the preceding spring (99). Although Rossetti's "anxiety" was attributed to "no specific ailment," by June of 1849, "she was 'so sick she could not even write out her own poems'" (Marsh 99-100). Marsh explains that in her early adolescence, Rossetti suffered a breakdown, after which her vivacious childhood personality turned permanently melancholic. According to Marsh, Rossetti enjoyed an "exceptionally happy and companionable" childhood, surrounded by three older siblings, an uncommonly "affectionate" father, and an attentive mother who oversaw the children's early education (24, 17, 22, 18). In 1842, however, when Rossetti was only twelve, her father's health rapidly declined (Marsh 38). By "1843, he suffered a crisis so serious and painful that he expected to die," and his severe illness turned the Rossettis' "cheerful and sociable home" into "a place of sickness and worry"—a "transformation" Marsh calls "catastrophic" (39).
Since Rossetti's father was the family's breadwinner, his incapacitating illness threw the "[f]amily finances... into an acute state," and Rossetti's mother and sister had to take jobs as governesses—although her brothers stayed away at school (Marsh 42).
Rossetti was left at home to tend to her father, who, once "confident" and "energetic," was now "a depressed and ailing invalid" (Marsh 43). Marsh suggests that, while Rossetti may have seemed to have "no legitimate reason to complain," she was nonetheless bereft of the companionship of her mother, brothers, and sister in the face of her father's daily "sufferings" (Marsh 43). Indeed, her family's trials "overshadowed and eclipsed Christina's own needs," and poetry became "an invaluable emotional" outlet for venting feelings too indecorous for other expression.
Although no clear record documents the specific nature of Rossetti's adolescent trauma, Marsh thoroughly addresses the existing facts, which include Rossetti's "selfmutilating gestures" like furiously slicing her arm open with a pair of scissors in response to her mother's chastisement (50). Rossetti's emotional anguish was "accompanied by physical symptoms not easy to diagnose," but the signs point toward "hysteria and depression" (Marsh 50). Marsh poignantly concludes, "At the age of fourteen [Rossetti] was suffering a severe nervous breakdown, just eighteen months after her father's collapse" (51). Although Rossetti's health did eventually improve, her personality never returned to its youthful exuberance, and she would continue to experience bouts of malaise and anxiety, such as the one in 1849. The enigmatic nature of Rossetti's afflictions resonates to some degree with the "mysterious fright" that "haunted" Emily Dickinson and inspired a slew of poems she wrote around 1862, including "After great pain" (Manley 260). Personal loss seems to inform both Dickinson's "After great pain" and Rossetti's "Remember."
The life of John Keats, however, may arguably be most marked by loss. The eldest of four surviving siblings, Keats was born in 1795, followed by his brothers, George and Tom, and by his brother Edward, who died in infancy when Keats was six (Bate 1, 8). Otherwise, like Rossetti's early home, the Keats' "household seems to have been an affectionate one" at first, according to Bate (8). When Keats was eight, he and his brother George were sent to a "small academy in Enfield" not far from their home, which was run by the kindly headmaster, John Clarke (Bate 9). Only a few months after the boys left home, however, their father died in a riding accident ("his horse slipped...
and in the accident his skull was fractured") on his way home from visiting his sons at school (Bate 12). Mrs. Keats, perhaps overwhelmed with the responsibility of managing the stables that provided the family's income, impetuously remarried less than three months after her husband's death (Bate 13). Mrs. Keats's parents "immediately took responsibility for the children," who promptly went to live with their grandparents (Bate 13). Susan Wolfson notes that Keats's mother was "apparently unhappy[y]" in her new marriage, "for she disappeared soon afterwards, not returning until 1807..." (75).
Almost a year after Keats's father passed away, Keats's grandfather died, and, due to his poorly-written will, Keats and his siblings were left with little financial support (Bate 13-14).
After their mother finally returned, she fell ill with consumption (Bate 20). When the boys were home for their Christmas break, Keats was "[j]olted into a sudden sense of responsibility" that appears remarkably Levinasian in its selflessness—"he sat up with his mother... for nights on end," cooking for her, "reading to her, and standing guard by her door as she slept" (Bate 21; Wolfson 75). Not realizing the extent of her illness, Keats and his brothers returned to school—but their mother died only a few months later in March 1810, when Keats was only fourteen (21). Bate observes, "Death could perhaps be taken more for granted by a child at that time than it is now," an observation that seems applicable to Donne's and Rossetti's circumstance as well (21). Keats's response to his mother's death, however, affirms that the loss of a family member can be traumatic, even when death is commonplace. Bate concludes that Keats "froze into reticence before calamity"; once a courageous fighter who would defend his brother and friends at school, after his mother's death, Keats curled up in "'a nook under the master's desk' in the schoolroom at Enfield," clearly overwhelmed by an "'impassioned and prolonged' sense of loss" (20-21). Enduring more than his fair share of loss, Keats affirms that loss may be felt deeply and poignantly even in situations where it may seem less significant to outsiders. Keats's experiences invite us to consider that the losses in Rossetti's and Donne's lives may have also left enduring marks on these poets, even if, especially in Donne's case, their grief seemed unvoiced. We are invited to consider that some mournful expressions may differ from our initial assumptions about what counts as legitimate grief.
Several other significant losses were to plague Keats, however, before he wrote "This Living Hand," which both Bate and The Norton Anthology of Poetry indicate he did in 1819. Eventually, Keats shared responsibility with his brother George for nursing Tom, who suffered from tuberculosis for many months and finally passed away on December 1, 1818, at age nineteen under Keats's care (Bate 386). Keats himself had had bouts of ill health—especially sore throats and toothaches—for awhile, and Bate concludes that Keats likely "had caught tuberculosis of the lungs" before Tom's death, "and that it began moving into an active stage by early September, 1819" (616). Brooke Hopkins points out the relevance of Keats's apprenticeship to a surgeon in reading implications of "dismemberment" in "This Living Hand" (31). Bate explains that Keats worked at this apprenticeship for four years, from the time he left school at age fifteen until he began studies at Guy's Hospital to earn a license to practice as a surgeon and an apothecary himself (30, 43). At the hospital, Keats worked as a dresser, accompanying surgeons on their rounds and changing patients' bandages (Bate 48). He undoubtedly witnessed some intense physical suffering, given that there were no anesthetics at the time (Bate 48). Bate includes a description of the typical scene: "the patient held down, often screaming with pain; the pupils packed in the operating theater... the surgeon with hardly room to operate" (48). Such intimate exposure to physical suffering likely informed an imagination capable of crafting the gruesomely physical curse in "This Living Hand." This biographical context, especially the decline in his brother's and his own health, suggests that the kind of aggression expressed in "This Living Hand" may also constitute a mode of mourning.