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Death, Romanticism and the Sublime

A recurring theme I have noticed in our readings so far that has not been addressed (or perhaps it was and I missed it in a lapse of attentiveness) is death as the ultimate form of freedom. This theme appears mostly in the poetry of Charlotte Smith, but it can be found in the others as well. 

For instance, in “To the Poor” by Anna Letitia Barbuald:

“But when thou feel’st the great deliverer nigh,
And thy freed spirit mounting seeks the sky,
Let no vain fears thy parting hour molest,
No whispered terrors shake thy quiet breast:
Think not their threats can work thy future woe” (lines 13-17)

However, Charlotte Smith expresses the sentiment the best (and the most often). Here are a few instances of it from her:

“That in thy orb, the wretched may have rest:
The sufferers of the earth perhaps may go,
Released by death–to thy benignant sphere,
And the sad children of despair and woe
Forget in thee, their cup of sorrow here.” (To the moon, lines 9-12)

“I sure shall find thee in that heavenly scene
Where care and anguish shall their power resign;
Where hope alike, and vain regret shall cease” (To Tranquility, lines 10-12)

Wordsworth’s “To Toussaint L’Overture almost smacks of the same thing when he tells Toussaint to accept death, albeit in a more political and literal sense in that he has powers working for him.

In attempting to follow the Romantic’s train of thought in this view of death, I don’t think it is entirely of Christian origin,  since a belief in Christianity was the norm in movements both before and after Romanticism, even if it did have a part to play. Rather, it seems to stem from the Romantic’s view of human existence as a bloody, painful, and ultimately fruitless affair; as evident in Burke’s depiction of the murder of the Queen, Charlotte Smith’s “Sonnet XXVII” and “The sea view”, the injustice done to Toussaint L’Ouverture, and so on. To the Romantic, death is a form of escapism from this world.

Death is also one of the strongest embodiments of the sublime, both in the Burkian sense because it is a part of nature that is terrifying, mysterious and infinite; and in the Kantian sense because the concept of death is something that exceeds human imagination.

Of course, all of this is dependent upon a correct interpretation of our readings, and a proper understanding of the thoughts of Burke and Kant.

Ah, subjectivity…


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