#52 in the OBVV…

We watch’d her breathing thro’ the night,

Her breathing soft and low,

As in her breast the wave of life

Kept heaving to and fro.

So silently we seem’d to speak,

So slowly moved about,

As we had lent her half our powers

To eke her living out.

Our very hopes belied our fears,

Our fears our hopes belied–

We thought her dying when she slept,

And sleeping when she died.

For when the morn came dim and sad,

And chill with early showers,

Her quiet eyelids closed–she had

Another morn than ours.


Last week when I was paging through the entirety of the OBVV hoping that it would yield an appropriately ox-themed lyric, I was struck with an unrelated insight–namely, the vast number of ways there are to write poems about death.

Oooooh, you say. Nice one, Anne. The Victorians were really into death, yeah, gotcha. Haven’t heard *that* one a million times before. How many times did you have to read In Memoriam to get to this point?

Okay, fine. On the face of it, this is not, perhaps, the most fantastically original observation I’ve had about Victorian poetry. But what I’m getting at has to do, perhaps, with the dramatization of the moment of death, and, furthermore, with the ambiguities surrounding that moment–and I’m not sure that we entirely appreciate those differences. One thing that’s always haunted me about the beginning of In Memoriam, for instance, is the interval between Hallam’s death and Tennyson’s finding out about Hallam’s death–I think it was something like three weeks, and I sometimes wonder if the poem was an attempt to write in that interval as much as anything else. So much of the work in the first section of the poem is an attempt to fix the fact of Hallam’s death across this geographic and temporal alienation–think the stanzas in the “Fair Ship” sequence where the poet almost thinks that Hallam might walk living off the boat that carries his corpse. (This is section XIV, for the curious, and per our recent discussions, yes, you should probably have read this in order to be a good Victorianist. Just saying. [Ed. note: I have! Just saying… although I hope you don’t have to read Idylls of the King…)

On another pole, there’s Browning’s “The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St Praxed’s Church,” a dramatic monologue spoken by the dying man himself. It’s not quite the Victorian good death (see the chapter by Herbert Tucker and Gerhard Joseph in  A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture), but it has the advantage of stifling closeness as opposed to crushing distance. Nevertheless, some confusion remains–the Bishop describes himself as “dying by degrees” and asking himself “do I live, am I dead?” But at least we have a death-bed.

We also, of course, have a death-bed in the poem above by Thomas Hood (1798-1845). Admittedly, Hood’s version of this scene–somewhere in the murky minor middle between Tennyson and Browning–doesn’t require a whole lot of heavy lifting in the close reading department. It’s the kind of poem that you find in anthologies with titles like The Mourner’s Friend: Or Sighs of Sympathy for those who Sorrow. Not everyone wants to rock out with the ambiguous diction when they’re in pain, apparently. (Those who do become Victorianists.) It doesn’t offer revolutionary poetic images, nor does it contain surprises at the end. What it shares with these more famous poems, though, is the way that it makes of death a kind of epistemological puzzle, open to confusion and ambiguity–and sometimes outright conflicts of interest and observation–while otherwise remaining very different from those works.

Those of you who know me know that this is a topic that is particularly close to my intellectual heart at the moment, which partially explains this post. And, as I quickly realized, I had encountered this poem before, in a discussion of the sleep/death confusion in Michael Wheeler’s Death and the Future Life in Victorian Literature and Theology, abridged as Heaven, Hell, and the Victorians. This is clearly also where I started thinking about “The Bishop Orders his Tomb.” As far as I know, Wheeler’s the best source for this particular line of thinking in Victorian poetry–I highly recommend the early sections of the book. (I’m sure the other ones are good too, but I mostly focused on the earlier chapters.)

Incidentally, I also think this is a pretty good example of Isobel Armstrong’s famous “Victorian double poem,” but I’m rapidly approaching the 800-word mark so I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.

A chronology with links to some of Thomas Hood’s other works can be found here. He has seven poems in the OBVV. “The Bridge of Sighs” [I added the link, which Anne might have balked at since it’s from poemhunter.com] was too long to deal with here, but it was unexpectedly moving.