Age and Mourning: Complicating Grief with John Clare’s Gravesite Poetry

Carlie Wetzel, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

 

1. When browsing through a cemetery, one first notices the last names, prominently displayed in etched letters on the stones. Often, however, a walk through a graveyard becomes an exercise in basic mental math; mortal curiosity causes most of us to wonder about the age of the memorialized individuals at their deaths. Perhaps the most jarring moments of such an excursion, then, occur when one stumbles upon the grave of an individual who had a very short lifespan. While the death rates of infants and adolescents vary widely over time and geography, there is still something quite different about our reaction to perceived premature deaths in comparison to the deaths of individuals who lived longer lives. Scholars study graveyards as sites of public mourning, but each individual gravesite represents a very specific type of mourning that partially depends upon the age of the deceased. Written meditations about graves from different historical moments, then, can offer insight into the ways writers and their societies mourned the deaths of individuals of different ages.

2. The physical presence of a grave generates a complex intersection of mourning and remembrance, providing writers and poets with ample inspiration for writing about grief. Many poets in the nineteenth century write about funerary and graveyard subjects in their poetry, including John Clare (1793-1864). Clare is most famous for his pastoral poems; however, he also wrote about the rural societies that resided in his beautiful sceneries (Robinson).1 Of particular interest are Clare’s poems detailing infant graves, like “Graves of Infants” and “Impromptu Suggested By Viewing an Infant Grave,” and those describing general village funerals and graveyards, like “Edward’s Grave,” “The Village Funeral,” and “The Churchyard.” These contrasting sets of poems provide a helpful illustration of the fact that not all physical spaces of mourning are experienced in the same way, as the age of the deceased affects the mourning experience. In Clare’s poetry, the speaker allows for a blend of mourning and reminiscence at older individuals’ graves, but asks mourners to approach children’s graves with joy. While joy in the face of premature death seems a dissonant idea, it is a consistent theme throughout Clare’s poetry. For Clare, mourning always involves the intermingling of grief and fond remembrance, but grief over a deceased infant is primarily an occasion for happiness and celebration.

3. Clare’s theory of mourning emerged from a particular historical moment. In the early nineteenth century high infant mortality rates persisted, particularly among the most impoverished families in England (Schrey 39). Starvation, disease, and poor housing conditions prevented many children from living more than a few years. Thus many elegiac poems from this period mourn the loss of infants and young children. Clare’s later poetry includes meditations on child mortality, likely inspired by Clare’s own experience of the death of young relatives (Schrey 39). Particular to Clare’s elegies is his devotion to detailed descriptions of the physical sites of mourning.2 According to Mark Sandy, Clare felt a deep connection between the human and natural worlds, and so Clare’s preservation of meaningful, natural landmarks in poetry is his way of preserving spaces of mourning, and of remembering the positive aspects of the world before the loss of innocence and intrusion of grief (139, 148). This connection between the physical space and the emotions experienced there becomes important when analyzing the particulars of Clare’s gravesite poetry, as Clare’s natural imagery clearly mirrors his theory of mourning.

4.  “Graves of Infants,” a popular Clare poem in scholarship, illustrates the link between the natural, physical space of an infant grave and the type of mourning that occurs there (237). In this poem, the speaker asserts that we should not mourn for deceased infants because their early deaths spared them from experiencing the hardships of life (Sandy 134).3 The natural metaphors contained in this poem support this core argument. The phrase “A bud their lifetime and a flower their close” not only likens infants to flowers, but also implies that their death actually leads to a new, better life after death (Clare, “Graves” 5). The imagery pertaining to the infants’ gravesites is also relatively cheery for an elegiac poem; at the grave we find flowers weeping dew-drops and a gale that gently sighs over the lost infant, and the Sun smiles “to show that their end was well” (Clare, “Graves”15). Mick Schrey provides an excellent defence of the repetitive nature of such imagery, arguing that

the echoing iteration of words and themes between each of the two stanzas in ‘Graves of Infants’ (needless prayers; needless tears; sighing summer gales; a smiling setting sun; the weeping dews of mourning flowers) lends cohesion to the composition and further imbues a lilting cadence to the Spenserian intonation. (39)

The cohesive nature of this poem adds to the feeling of closure; the speaker insists that we need not mourn the deaths of infants, and the repetitive catalogue of symbols structures the argument. While this message may seem callous to the twenty first-century reader, and may seem to a modern audience to neglect the feelings of the mourners, many elegies for children in the nineteenth century promote celebration at infants’ deaths. The reason for this has its roots in Christian theology: “Clare offers an extreme form of ‘positive resignation,’ one in which grief is banished, mourning unnecessary. God and God’s nature will provide” (Woods 187).4 Clare imagines feelings of joy, peace, and happiness around an infant’s grave, as he imagines the infants in a better place.

5. In another poem, “Impromptu Suggested By Viewing an Infant Grave,” Clare takes this idea further by expressing envy for deceased infants. Here again we find vibrant natural images at the gravesite, including verdant sod and smiling daisies (Clare, “Impromptu” 1-2). “The ashes of an infant,” a visceral image, are asleep, which implies that death brings “eternal rest” and peace (Clare, “Impromptu” 3, 7). The speaker expresses great sadness that he did not die at infancy, saying that the infant is “doubly happy, doubly blest— / Had I so happy been…Such joy—twas my sad fate to miss, / & thy good luck to see” (Clare, “Impromptu” 5-6, 11-12). The speaker declares that this death-envy is not an idiosyncrasy, and that many share the view, saying, “What crowds will wish with me in vain, / They’d fill’d an Infants Grave” (Clare, “Impromptu” 15-16). An early death means an escape from the trials of a life on earth, and the speaker rejoices in the deceased infant’s happy fate; as Mick Schrey comments, “This celebration of innocence excludes the crude adult world: in death the infants are glorified, for in death they earn the flower’s tears, the dewdrops that symbolize their fragile, but lasting innocence” (39). Clare views an infant death as a preservation of purity, and the beautiful flowers and sod around the grave reflect this idea in a concrete manner. By describing infant graves with literal imagery of life, Clare ascribes positive emotions to these sites of mourning.

6.  The imagery surrounding older individuals’ graves in Clare’s poetry is quite different, however, and so is the type of mourning imagined to take place in those spaces. In “Edward’s Grave” the reader is privy to the protagonist Sally’s visit to the grave of her lost love, Edward. She journeys to the gravesite despite the gloomy surroundings:

Nor moping gost, nor spectre pale,
Nay the most dismal night
When hollow winds does wisstle thro
The mournful cypress shade,
When bent in howling rage the Yew—
Can never fright the maid. (Clare, “Edward’s” 11-16)

The hollow winds and mournful cypress are in sharp contrast to the sighing breezes and daisies found by infant graves in Clare’s poetry. Such dismal imagery compliments Sally’s tears and sad prayers for the lost Edward. This instance of mourning does not stand alone, however; Sally visits Edward’s grave, “her sorrows to renew,” implying that this is not the first time she has mourned in that space (Clare, “Edward’s” 4). Ultimately the deceased Edward’s reunion with nature does not provide adequate consolation to the mourning Sally (Sandy 138). This is because there is more of a sense of personal loss in this poem. Unlike in Clare’s “Impromptu Suggested By Viewing an Infant Grave,” in which the infant was referred to with the ambiguous pronoun “it,” Edward is named and called “lover,” and even “thy Edward,” implying that Sally had a romantic claim to him (Clare, “Edward’s” 8, 25). Whereas the deceased infant did not live long enough to realize a particular individuality and establish reciprocal relationships with others, the older Edward was loved and appreciated as an individual by other people. Grief in this space, then, is permissible, because Clare acknowledges the sadness involved in losing an individual and thus the individual’s particular potential to enrich the lives of family and friends.

7. The loss of an older individual not only causes grief for loved ones, but it also affects the entire community. For example, Clare’s “The Village Funeral” describes the funeral proceedings for a widow in the country. A weeping train walks to the woman’s grave and turns into a silent crowd as the curate performs the final rites. The people in the crowd do not simply cry for the loss of the individual, but they also weep for the orphans left behind, as, without parents to provide for them, the “Workhouse stands as their asylum now” (Clare, “Village” 89). Thus the gravesite becomes a place to mourn not only a widow, but also social injustice. The funeral and grave additionally serve as a place for mourners to confront their own mortality: “Aw’d is the mind by dreaded truths imprest / To think that dust which they before them see / Once livd like them!—chill concience tells the rest / That like that dust themselves must shortly be” (Clare, “Village” 61-64). These feelings of loss, anger, and fear are far from the joy Clare imagines at an infant’s grave, and the scenery in “The Village Funeral” reflects this reality:

The Churchyard round a mournfull view displays
Views where mortality is plainly pennd
Drear seems the object which the eye surveys
As objects pointing to our later end

There the lank nettles sicken ere they seed
Where from old trees eves cordial vainly falls
To raise or comfort each dejected weed
While pattering drops decay the crumbling walls (Clare, “Village” 45-48)

Nettles, aged trees, weeds, and crumbling walls, all set on a stark, gloomy backdrop, heighten the negative feelings that accompany the burial of the widow. There is a glimmer of happiness, or at the very least nostalgia, as the speaker acknowledges that the headstones in the graveyard have the ability to prompt happy memories or the deceased; they have a “sweet enliv’ning power” (Clare, “Village” 53). This moment, however, is different from the joy imagined at an infant’s grave. Graves for older individuals are depicted as sites of complex mourning and places of fond recollection of the deceased, but not places of overt happiness and celebration like infants’ graves.

8. In analyzing these two sets of poems, we see that the instances of pathetic fallacy in Clare’s gravesite poetry present sharp differences between graves of infants and older individuals. An additional example of this contrast can be found in Clare’s “The Churchyard,” in which this dueling imagery appears in one poem (Clare 333-34). Throughout these five poems the images remain consistent; the smiling flowers upon an infant’s grave sharply contrast with the nettles on a mother’s grave. The difference in the imagery of gravesites and corresponding rhetoric of mourning in John Clare’s poetry reveals that physical graves are not always imagined or approached in the same manner. For Clare, the age of a deceased individual dictates the imagery and emotions associated with a gravesite; infants’ graves are sites of joy, but older individuals’ graves are more explicitly spaces of grief. Clare’s infant grave poetry is more concerned about the fate of the deceased infants’ souls, while Clare’s grave poetry for older individuals is more concerned with the grief of those in the family and community left behind to mourn and cope. The ages of deceased individuals, as well as the relationships they formed while on earth, affect the way they are mourned in Clare’s poetry. Thus, when we imagine and study gravesites as locations of mourning, we must remember that the age of the memorialized individual is linked with the type of mourning that has taken place in that space. The dates on headstones that mark the lifespan of the deceased are more than simply the bookends, but rather these numbers provide a window into how the individual was mourned and/or celebrated at their death. As studies concerning gravesites continue, we must further interrogate the complexity and variability of the types of mourning that happen in these spaces.

 


 

[1] In John Clare and the Place of Poetry, Mina Gorji explains that Clare was not simply a solitary genius; he was deeply involved in the culture and life of his surroundings, and this informed his poetry.

[2] In John Clare and Community, John Goodridge records the particulars Clare planned for his own grave (55). Clare expressed that he did not want dates to be included on his headstone, writing, “I wish it to live or dye with my poems and other writings” (55).

[3]For Mark Sandy’s extended thoughts on the symbols and language in “Graves of Infants,” see Chapter 8 of Romanticism, Memory, and Mourning.

[4] John Clare’s Religion by Sarah Houghton-Walker provides a critical analysis of John Clare’s faith.To read the poem as it appears in The Forest Sanctuary, see UC Davis’ excellent website, British Women Romantic Poets http://quod.lib.umich.edu/b/bwrp/HemaFFores/1:6.20?rgn=div2;view=fulltext


Works Cited

Clare, John. “Impromptu Suggested By Viewing an Infant Grave,” “Edward’s Grave.” and “The Village Funeral.” The Early Poems of John Clare: 1804-1822. Chadwyck-Healey, 1992. Web. Accessed via English Poetry Full-Text Database, UNC Libraries.

Clare, John. “Graves of Infants.” John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript. ‪R. Cobden-Sanderson, 1920‬. Web. Accessed via HathiTrust.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬ ‬‬

Clare, John. “The Churchyard.” The Later Poems of John Clare: 1837-1864. Ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell, and Margaret Grainger, vol. 1, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984, pp. 333-34.

Goodridge, John. John Clare and Community. Cambridge University Press, 2013. Web. Accessed via Google Books.

Gorji, Mina. John Clare and the Place of Poetry. Liverpool University Press, 2008. Web. Accessed via Google Books.

Houghton-Walker, Sarah. John Clare’s Religion. Ashgate Publishing, 2013. Web. Accessed via Google Books.

Robinson, Eric H. “Clare, John (1793–1864).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Sandy, Mark. Romanticism, Memory, and Mourning. Ashgate, 2013. Print.

Schrey, Mick. “‘Infants Graves are Steps of Angels’: Childhood Mortality as a Recurrent Theme in Clare’s Poetry.” John Clare Society Journal. vol. 26, 2007, pp. 33. Web. Accessed via UNC Libraries.

Woods, Robert. Children Remembered: Responses to Untimely Death in the Past. Liverpool University Press, 2006. Print.