The grave Victorians

July 11, 1997

Fear death? - to feel the fog in my throat,

The mist in my face,

When the snows begin, and the blasts denote

I am nearing the place,

The power of the night, the press of the storm, the post of the foe;

Where he stands, the Arch fear in a visible form,

Yet the strong man must go.

WHEN Robert Browning wrote these words in his poem Prospice, he was addressing the paradox of the Victorian age which was full of optimism for life, yet preoccupied with death.

Research at University College London has found the Victorians were more willing to think about and discuss death than we are today, but only on the romanticised terms set by poets such as Browning and Tennyson.

Samantha Matthews, a PhD student in UCL's English faculty, scoured the Chadwyck-Healey English poetry database to discover about 10,000 poems referring to graves, graveyards and the material "trappings" of death in the 19th century. She then studied the works of minor poets of the time, such as Alexander Anderson, Alfred Austin and Laetitia Landon, and found them fixated on the image of a peaceful country church graveyard, conjured up by the greater dead poets they were paying homage to.

"It was a nostalgia for something which never existed for most people," she says. "It was a romanticised ideal which ignored grave robbings from the start of the century, the opening of cemeteries in the 1830s, the closing of city burial grounds in the 1850s, and the beginnings of cremation in the 1880s. They reacted to these disturbing changes by referring back to the traditional model of the grave."

These attitudes made it easier for the Victorians to confront difficult questions about death arising from new conflicts between science and religion. "The poets played a key role in expressing these concerns. Death became almost a sexy subject for the Victorians - it was fascinating as well as frightening," Ms Matthews says.

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