Musing Sadly on the Dead: Erotic Epistemology in the Nineteenth-Century English Elegy
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This project is about what I am calling an “erotic epistemology” in nineteenth-century English elegiac poetry, a condition or event in a poetic text in which the discourses of love and knowledge are, to use a term Shelley liked to describe the experience of love, “intermixed.” The persistence of this inter-discourse suggests some fundamental connection between the desire for love and the desire for knowledge. Curiously, these performances of erotic longing insist urgently in the rhetorical, formal, and somatic registers of elegiac poetry in the nineteenth century. The confrontation with death that elegy stages is ideal for thinking about the relationship between erotic desire and poetic knowledge. As the limit case of a mind confronting an ultimately unknowable condition, the furthest expression of an impossible desire—the desire for the dead—elegies are love poems as well as death poems. This dissertation argues that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais for John Keats (1821), Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam for Arthur Hallam (1850), Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Ave Atque Vale for Charles Baudelaire (1867), and Thomas Tod Stoddart’s The Death-Wake (1831), perform the poetics of mourning as an erotic discourse, and allow an intimate understanding of a dead other that is an experience of pleasure. Much scholarship on the concept of eros considers it nearly synonymous with sexual desire and bodily pleasure. This project establishes a mode of reading elegy through its figures and forms that conceptualizes eros in these poems beyond sexuality, and without the burdens of biography and history. By stepping outside the critical confines of generic convention, literary influence, and eros-as-sexual want, this dissertation reevaluates the interpretive possibilities of erotic desire and language in a genre that is not commonly read as an amorous mode of speech. For these elegists, knowledge itself is an object of amorous desire, and epistemological want is a motive force of poetic mourning. These poems arrive at the pleasure of this knowledge through verse forms and figures of speech that perform an intimate textual relationship between the living and the dead, and when these linguistic events occur, the elegies reveal themselves as love poems.