decorated initial 'F' ixated as the Victorians were on death, it is not at all surprising that a number of talented British poets in the nineteenth century would have explored mourning. From the elaborate, regal funerals of British royalty down to the simpler funerals of members of the working class — paid for by dutifully purchased death insurance — rituals of death formed an integral part of British life (Jones, 199). Yet the poets explored here do not write about funerals. Nor do they follow the traditional patterns of elegiac poetry, for example, used in Algernon Charles Swinburne's elegy to Baudelaire, "Ave Atque Vale." Rather, they thoroughly explore various aspects of the emotional experience of mourning. Some poets, notably Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson, delve into the ways that people express grief. Tennyson also struggles with the role of one's conscience in the process of mourning and with ways to reconcile a personal need for comfort and consolation with a strong desire to honor and preserve the memory of the deceased. Christina Rossetti examines how gender and sexual interest influence the way people mourn; in particular, she considers the value of mourning in relationships in which the fleeting nature of love is acknowledged. Both she and Tennyson deal with the dead woman as an aesthetic object, and the belated mourning of a previously inattentive male figure who feasts his eyes upon the dead female, bringing to light another aspect of the way gender relations affect mourning. Finally, Rossetti presents contrasting images of the afterlife that variously affect the practice of mourning, depending upon the consciousness of the deceased.

A common motif permeating poetry that deals with mourning is sound, be it in the form of tears of mourning, a missed language, a song of mourning or a noted silence. A large number of poems that consider death and mourning utilize images related to sound. The role of sound in the various elements of mourning these poets consider is crucial: sound is a critical link between two people; when one person dies, this connection is apparently broken, and the mourner is left in the unhappy position of vocally trying to maintain contact with the deceased. Thus, the numerous sound illusions in elegiac poetry are no more surprising than the general Victorian focus on death: people have mourned by means of words and songs for a long time. The emotionally charged and experimental ways of examining this method of mourning set apart the work of these poets.

Seeking a means of expressing grief

The loss of her parents is a shadow that hangs over Aurora Leigh in her struggle to mold her identity, in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh. Aurora tells of the loss of her mother early in the poem, describing the pain of a young child hardly old enough to understand what has happened but intensely aware that something is amiss. Aurora feels that she will always be searching for a mother because she was so young when her mother died and hence their time together was extremely brief.

I felt a mother-want about the world,
And still went seeking, like a bleating lamb
Left out at night, in shutting up the fold, —
As restless as a nest-deserted bird
Grown chill through something being away, though what
It knows not. [First book, lines 40-45, p. 2]

In Aurora's pain, she likens herself to "a bleating lamb," interestingly connecting her own mourning with the repeated cry of a young animal. The other animal analogy she makes is to a "nest-deserted bird," and since birds are associated with songs, this also seems to have aural connotations. Aurora is like a crying animal, calling out for attention to a loved one who will not hear her. Thus, this passage subtly develops the idea of mourning as a plea to the one who has died somehow to respond and return. Aurora feels that her mother, by dying, has shut her out of her love and deserted her.

The animals symbolically carry out Aurora's crying; she is too young to mourn by means of words, tears or songs, as her father writes in the verses to the memory of her mother, "Weep for an infant too young to weep much / When death removed this mother" (first book, lines 103-4, p. 4). Her father's entreaty is primarily calling for sympathy for the child who is too young to have known her mother and therefore too young to mourn her. However, he is literally calling for the act of mourning by means of tears to make up for the child's inability to cry about death at her age. Thus, there is a positive association with mourning in Aurora Leigh: there is a perceived need for Aurora to cry as part of the process of mourning her mother; the sadness of this circumstance is that the child is too young to mourn and hence show reverence and the pain of loss. She is also too young to experience the cathartic effects of mourning.

When she is still quite yo ung, Aurora's father dies as well. Aurora is then taken from her nurse and from Italy, her homeland, and sent to live with her aunt. The moment of parting from her nurse is wrought with agony and sounds of loss. Aurora cannot yet express her sadness, but at this point she is acutely aware of others' sounds, particularly the sounds emitted by her nurse in her unhappiness at being parted from Aurora.

                                       [W]ith a shriek,
She let me go, — while I, with ears too full
Of my father's silence, to shriek back a word,
In all a child's astonishment at grief
Stared at the wharfage where she stood and moaned!
My poor Assunta, where she stood and moaned! [First Book, lines 226-31, p. 7]

Even as Aurora cannot speak in her youthful misery, she notices that her father's voice has been stilled and that her nurse moans as she anticipates the loss of Aurora. Thus, vocal mourning is associated not only with the adult way of grieving a death but also with the separation of people. Sound creates a connection between people, and death and parting break that link.

It is not until Aurora reaches England that she is finally able to cry over the death of her father. She hears Britons speaking English, a language which she had only heard her father speak, and she feels the pain of unfulfilled expectations: the love she had come to associate with that language has passed with the death of her father, and that same language is now spoken by strangers.

And when I heard my father's language first
From alien lips which had no kiss for mine,
I wept aloud, then laughed, then wept, then wept, —
And some one near me said the child was mad
Through much sea-sickness. [First Book, lines 254-58, p. 8]

Hearing the language and focusing on her loss, Aurora is finally able to grieve aloud, and she cries and laughs with sadness and relief at her ability to mourn. Her expression of grief is perceived by those around her as delirium or a fit of insanity. Although this is a somewhat negative response to her mourning, those around her do not know the cause of her tears, and so this passage does not seem to contradict the general sentiment in Aurora Leigh with regards to vocal mourning: it is a natural expression of pain that adults manifest, and that children, as they mature, will also learn to convey. Furthermore, the loss of a person creates a void: his voice is silenced. Hence, the vocal act of calling a person back fills that sound void, and is therefore comforting to the mourner.

Tennyson also considers the appropriate way to mourn and the role of sound in this process — particularly in the form of mourning songs — in In Memoriam, his experimental elegy for his beloved friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. He questions the morality of such methods of mourning with respect to the memory of the deceased; yet it seems that in addition to his concern for the deceased, the narrator is also personally dissatisfied with the effects of mourning songs.

Peace; come away: the song of woe
Is after all earthly song.
Peace; come away: we do him wrong
To sing so wildly: let us go. [57, lines 1-4, p. 239]

These lines suggest that the songs a mourner sings and the sounds of weeping together express a need to cling to the deceased and a refusal to relinquish him. The speaker and the other mourners dwell on the dead one, carrying on wildly rather than letting him pass peacefully and calmly. The narrator's call to those singing is to leave the dead behind and go on. He literally says that it does the deceased wrong when those alive sing, but he seems to be concerned with those who survive as well. Although this singing about loss is an earthly thing to do, and it is not exactly viewed by the speaker as an inappropriate way for those on earth to channel their grief, it is nonetheless not satisfying for exactly the reason it is natural: it is only earthly, and it provides no divine satisfaction to the mourner. The narrator is seeking that sort of spiritual experience and confirmation that Hallam died for a divine reason. The speaker feels this divine connection to Hallam in poem 95 of In Memoriam, and it is by means of touch not sound that the spiritual experience occurs, and that the narrator finds at least some degree of satisfaction.

The role of conscience

Throughout In Memoriam, Tennyson, as an evolving narrator, struggles in his efforts to cope with Hallam's death. He considers thoroughly how he will be affected by different modes of mourning, and he worries deeply about the effects these will have on him. He is acutely concerned that in mourning Hallam, he will somehow ease his own suffering; although he is urgently searching for divine meaning behind Hallam's death, his conscience continuously discourages him from mourning in any way that consoles him, and this makes his mourning process even more difficult and painful.

He contemplates the morality of writing about his friend's death, fearing that the action of writing, which may mitigate his pain — "Like dull narcotics, numbing pain" (5, line 8, p. 208), is unethical. The act of forming words out of his pain, he fears, will misrepresent his feelings because it is impossible to perfectly capture the state of his soul (5, lines 1-4, p. 208). Similarly, he worries that beyond simply soothing his pain, he is actually using the death of his friend as inspiration for his own artistic creation, just as the yew tree receives its nourishment from the dead bodies buried in graveyards (2, lines 1-4, p. 207); this is a highly disturbing thought to a character so plagued by his conscience. He also worries that the elegy he is writing for Hallam will not provide an enduring tribute to his friend.

Come; let us go: your cheeks are pale;
But half my life I leave behind.
Methinks my friend is richly shrined;
But I shall pass, my work will fail. [57, lines 5-8, p. 239]

Thus, in his mourning, the narrator is aiming not only to grapple with Hallam's death, but to create a worthy memorial for him.

Although the narrator calls for an end to mournful singing, he expresses the belief that he will always be haunted by sounds reminding him of the death of Hallam. He notes that until his hearing fails him or until he himself dies, he shall hear a slow, constant bell announcing the death of his friend repeatedly in his own ears. He also describes hearing the repeated farewells said to those who are dead.

Yet in these ears, till hearing dies,
One set slow bell will seem to toll
The passing of the sweetest soul
That ever look'd with human eyes.

I hear it now, and o'er and o'er,
Eternal greetings to the dead;
And "Ave, Ave, Ave," said,
"Adieu, adieu," for evermore. [57, lines 9-16, p. 239]

Thus, even when the mourner stops his vocal mourning, he nonetheless remains doomed to hear reminders of the death. It is as though the connection between the two men is so strong that not even death can break it, and sounds still draws them to one another.

At this point in the poem, the narrator seems to believe that it is the responsibility of the mourner forever to hear morbid, painful sounds. Interestingly, if memories of the dead can aurally infiltrate the being of the mourner but the mourner must remain silent and experience pain fully, the natural order of the world becomes inverted: rather than the dead being silenced and those who remain alive retaining the power to speak and sing, the reverse essentially is condoned. That is, the narrator may continue to speak and sing, orally expressing his grief, but such vocal manifestations of sadness are not encouraged. On the contrary, the bells prompting him to grieve, which the narrator hears in his mind, are considered righteous and appropriate.


Whereas some poems denigrate the act of mourning aloud, suggesting that it is inappropriate or inadequate, others discourage such forms of mourning in the particular context of romantic relationships and gender relations. For example, in Christina Rossetti's "Song," the narrator's request that the person to whom the poem is addressed not mourn is more a reflection of the dynamic between the characters and an indicator of gender relations than a suggestion of a general dissatisfaction of the narrator with vocal mourning.

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt remember,
And if thou wilt forget. [lines 1-8, p. 198]

As George Landow has shown in "The Dead Woman Talks Back: Christina Rossetti's Ironic Intonation of the Dead Fair Maiden," Rossetti is toying with and upsetting common ideas of Victorian femininity. The last two lines of the quotation above seem to conform to standard stereotypes of the self-sacrificing female: she does not want to inconvenience her lover or cause him distress by demanding that he mourn her and always remember her. Yet the final lines of the poem, "Haply I may remember, / And haply may forget" (lines 15-16) reverse the previous vision of self-sacrifice and eternal love on the part of the female speaker, suggesting instead that she is content to or at least quite capable of forgetting her lover and that he should do the same.

This reading allows for further consideration of the role of the specific acts of mourning that are mentioned in the poem. As the poem continues, the speaker describes a senseless afterlife in which she will not see, feel or hear anything, including the nightingale's song. Thus, her death will distinctly separate her from the world, and not even the mourning song of the nightingale will reach her. The removal of the speaker from the living world will render her incapable of hearing songs of mourning, and therefore such mourning rituals become ridiculous. In the course of the poem, the narrator gradually challenges the notion that there is eternal love between herself and the speaker. Thus, death can be seen as the appropriate moment at which to accept the rupture of their relationship, since it would not continue forever anyway; there is no need, then, to prolong the connection by means of songs and other customs of mourning. Rossetti boldly states what many people dare not admit: that the person who has died will not benefit from the mourning practices of those who survive him and hence, such customs only serve those who live. In a situation in which the lover is not likely to go on loving the woman who has died, Rossetti's narrator urges him not to mourn in false, showy ways: both of them will soon forget each other anyway.

Beyond projecting herself into the grave, the speaker in Rossetti's "After Death" is already dead and narrates the poem from the grave. She is thus a standard aesthetic object, deemed a beautiful and rich source for poetry (Landow). In this poem, the lamenting words of the dead woman's beloved reach her ears, even though he does not know it.

He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
"Poor Child, poor child:" and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept. [lines 5-8, p. 200]

In this case, the man's grieving words do provide comfort to the narrator, whom he did not love in her life and whom he can only pity in death. In the silence, she indicates her certainty that he is crying for her. Thus, words and tears of mourning have practical significance in this poem because they can be heard and felt by the deceased. Here the acts of mourning do not fall on deaf ears, and they are conveyed to the reader by the character with the most personal investment in them: the dead woman for whom they were intended.

The dead woman as an aesthetic object also appears at the end of Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" when the knight Lancelot notices the beauty of the dead Lady of Shalott. From the moment that she places herself in the boat and sets out down the river, sound plays a key role in setting the scene of her death. As she floats, "the noises of the night"(line 139) are mentioned, but it is the music that she herself creates that is the more powerful sound.

They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to tower'd Camelot.
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott. [lines 143-53, p. 44]

It is as though the Lady of Shalott sounds her own death knell with her song. Her music is her final and only direct interaction with the world, distant as it is, before her death. She has emerged from her bower and sings a song that reaches the ears of those her boat passes on the journey to Camelot. Then, after death, she physically confronts the outside world. Previously, she saw shadows and reflections of the world outside and made no art that the outside world could appreciate. The sound she emits before her death, however, establishes a brief and melancholic connection between her and the world.

Yet when she reaches Camelot, she is "silent" (line 158, p. 44), and her deathly presence causes the merriment in the palace to cease, killing the sounds within (lines 164-5, p. 45). The silence of those at the palace stresses the absence of vocal mourning, emphasizing the distance between her and them, and their inability to feel deep compassion for her. The connection she made with them with her song is largely one-sided: most of them do not respond. Lancelot, however, does respond, but his comments about the beauty of her face and his request for God's blessing on her ring of transience: in death she has caught his fancy for a moment, but he will soon move on and forget her. In the same way that Rossetti argues against the immortality of love in "Song," Tennyson seems to suggest the inherently ephemeral nature of vocal mourning at the end of "The Lady of Shalott." The use of the word "mournful" anticipates her death, and perhaps compensates for the fact that she will not be mourned by anyone who knew her, except in her own self-pitying song.

The post-mortem mourning of the men who did not love or notice the women in life has a dramatic and ironic, yet somewhat shallow effect. In both "After Death" and "The Lady of Shalott," the reader is left with a slight feeling of satisfaction: at least the man has finally noticed the woman, if only for a moment and after her death. An aura of revenge, if only mild revenge, is thereby achieved: the punishment for having ignored the women in life is that the men are doomed to see beauty in the women only when they are already out of reach.

Images of the Afterlife

Rossetti's imaginings of life after death range from the complete alertness seen in "After Death" to the partially aware state of the woman in "Dream Land" to the completely senseless states of the women in "Song" and "Rest." The woman discussed in "Rest" is completely shielded from the sounds of earthly life. However, the sounds discussed in the poem are not sounds of mourning, but rather the sounds that make up daily life. The omniscient narrator calls for the earth to physically isolate and protect the buried woman from "mirth/ With its harsh laughter" (lines 3-4, p. 200) and the "sound of sighs" (line 4, p. 200). The narrator, who several times alludes to sound, claims that the woman will be spared all noise in her rest, and that the silence of death will be "more musical than any song" (line 10, p. 200). The afterlife in this poem resembles that described in "Song" in that the woman escapes to a senseless, timeless place of peace. Although "Rest" does not deal directly with mourning, it reinforces the idea that sound establishes a connection between people; in the woman's desire to escape the world in death, she is entirely isolated, both from people and sound.

Interestingly, in Rossetti's "Dream Land," she creates a post-mortem state somewhere between the full awareness of the narrator in "After Death" and the senseless afterlife described in "Song" and "Rest." The third person narrator in "Dream Land" never states that the woman in the poem is dead, saying rather that she is asleep, which is also implied by the title. However a number of illusions in the poem suggest that her sleep is actually death, or at least strongly resembles such a state: "a perfect rest" (line 17), "rest, for evermore" (line 25), and

Till time shall cease:
Sleep that no pain shall wake;
Night that no morn shall break
Till joy shall overtake
Her perfect peace. [lines 28-32, p. 199].

The final two lines in particular suggest the prospect of heaven after a deathly respite. Although Rossetti describes how the speaker cannot see grain or feel rain, she nonetheless is able to see "the sky look pale" (line 14) and hear "the nightingale / That sadly sings" (lines 15-6). Her awareness of these sights and sounds suggests an increased awareness as opposed to the senseless afterlife anticipated by the narrator of "Song." In "Dream Land" there is no indictment of mourning. Rather, there is a slight indication that sounds can pass between the worlds of the living and the dead or at least deeply sleeping; therein may lie a justification for the nightingale's song or a lover's cries of mourning, despite the indications in "Song" that such methods of mourning are futile.

As a contrast to Rossetti's quieter imaginings of the afterlife, and a parallel to "After Death," it seems reasonable to mention the afterlife envisioned by Robert Browning in his dramatic monologue, "The Bishop Orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church." In "A Strangely Literal Afterlife," I discuss the lack of faith suggested by the fully aware, materialistic, and grudge-holding afterlife the Bishop envisions for himself. Yet despite Rossetti's devout religious tendencies, her depiction of the afterlife, in the poems discussed above, seems less religiously than emotionally focused: she is concerned with the women's connections or lack thereof to the world and people around them, and how death and awareness of sound affect these connections.

Mourning and the connections people hope to make by emitting sounds are relatively specific themes, yet they illuminate a distinct perspective on the broader topics of personal expression, conscience, gender and the afterlife, all subjects explored by the Victorian poets here considered. They created characters who aspire to connect with other people, sometimes those who have died and are therefore out of reach. These characters struggle to adequately express their emotions. In situations of loss, this need to express oneself is heightened as a result of suffering. As they grieve and search for meaning or solace in the wake of a death, some characters feel the strains of a strong conscience, causing them to question which forms of mourning and self-expression are moral and which are not. Certain poets considered the way that men grieve for women, sometimes viewing the process from unusual angles. Gender relations played an ever-changing role in Victorian life, so of course their appearance in the elegiac poetry of the nineteenth century is understandable. Poetry that deals with love often also considers loss, and this loss allows for creative conceptions of the afterlife. All of these subjects intimately relate to human relationships. By addressing these issues, the poems discussed show that sounds both draw people together and ultimately force them to accept that their connections have been severed — and that all that remains is silence.


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Buckley, Jerome H. ed. The Pre-Raphaelites. Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago: 1968.

Hill, Robert W. Jr., ed. Tennyson's Poetry. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., New York: 1999.

Jones, Gareth Stedman. "Working-class culture and working-class politics in London, 1870-1900: Notes on the remaking of a working class" in Languages of class: studies in English working class history, 1832-1982. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1983.

Landow, George. "The Dead Woman Talks Back: Christina Rossetti's Ironic Intonation of the Dead Fair Maiden."

Newman, Abigail. "A Strangely Literal Afterlife in 'The Bishop Orders his Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church.'"

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Poems of Robert Browning
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Swinburne, Algernon Charles. "Ave Atque Vale, In Memory of Charles Baudelaire." [text on U. of Toronto site].

Last modified 17 December 2003