Grave Places

This is a blurb written to explore an idea I had in a seminar on Victorian place poetry. Please excuse, enjoy, or excoriate the whimsy as you see fit.

A lot of the poetry we’ve been looking at in the seminar is set at the graves of Victorian celebrities. Matthew Arnold has a poem on Heinrich Heine’s grave, Alfred Austen writes about Shelley’s grave, Oscar Wilde writes about both Shelley and Keats’ graves (in separate poems), and Felicia Hemans writes about Mary Tighe’s. In the usual lyric/elegiac fashion, almost all of it shifts from a physical description (e.g. of the graves and their environs) to a more abstract reflection (e.g. on the celebrities’ lives and significance). This type of poetry is one facet of “necrotourism.”

But why the physical place? Presumably it isn’t necessary to visit a grave to commemorate and reflect on a person you didn’t know personally. What is it about graves, as places, that draw people to them? What happens there?

Graves, quite naturally, exert gravity. They gather a huge mass of associations into a single space. Gaston Bachelard, the French philosopher who should be known for writing delightfully startling phrases like, “Winter is by far the oldest of seasons,” and “the snail’s entire house would be a stair-well,” says it better: “In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time. That is what space is for.” Or again, “The finest specimens of fossilized duration concretized as a result of long sojourn, are to be found in and through space” (The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas).

But particular kinds of places – grave places – tinge the whole corpus of associations in a way that other places don’t. Grave places label things in ominous blackletter. Grave places pull you in, and the weightier the associations of the past, the stronger the pull. I can’t help noticing that tombs are often marked with stone – dense, heavy, material appropriate for representing a life, and the overwhelming fact that it ended. Dense, heavy material with a definite event horizon. Once you are drawn past it, you’ll be compelled to reflect on the uncomfortable associations of the grave in an ever tightening orbit.

And then what?

And then, somehow, you spin off to contemplate the blue. Some poets use the grave place as a gravitational slingshot to give their own lives or poetry a bit more momentum. Alfred Austen’s poem about Shelley’s grave curves around the place, reflects on the details of the grave site, the past, the loss of the poet as a cultural leader, as a prophet, even – and then breaks away to carry the torch with renewed zeal. (In his poem, the torch is the sacred flame of Shelley’s Romantic passion, which just about consumed his heart, but also the actual fire of his funeral pyre, from which his heart was apparently snatched by Edward Trelawny. Make of that what you will.) When this blurb ends in a moment, you’ll see that in a way, I’ve been doing it too. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to realize that…

In any case, you eventually look away from the grave, having run up against its physical finality, having run with an idea or a memory as far as it will go. You look up to the horizon, maybe. The sky is bigger, and it changes. There’s room for a future there. You feel your feet on the ground, of course. But the sky is so permanently impermanent that it resists the concreteness of the past.

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