decorated initial 'V' ictorians mastered the fine art of displacement, and the taboos associated with suicide helped them along. The threat of suicide might be shifted away from the self by sensationalizing suicides or by retrospectively writing about one's own youthful conquest of suicidal melancholy, as did Mill and Nightingale, but subversive subjects like sex and self-murder could best be discussed indirectly, by distancing. A deeply entrenched sense of history and a growing familiarity with other cultures helped the Victorians distance the fearful. If their culture condemned suicide and prevented full discussion of its contemporary insidiousness, it nevertheless encouraged a close look at self-destruction in other times and in other cultures. People and places remote in time or space offered a set of surrogate selves to examine, praise, or condemn. Displacement provided Victorians with self-protection.

The suicides of history, especially ancient history, had long interested educated British. Cato in particular had captured their imagination. Both John Donne's Biathanatos (1608) and Joseph Addison's Cato (1713) envisioned Cato's suicide attempt followed by his successful suicide — clawing out his own entrails to avoid Caesar's despotism — as a courageous and noble death. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, love of Rome and Stoicism coupled with love of natural rights to some extent countered Christian strictures against suicide (Sprott). Even the Roman Catholic Alexander Pope asked if it could be criminal to "act a Roman's part."(Pope, 332-333) A more convinced advocate of suicide was Joseph Addison's cousin, Eustace Budgell, who invoked both Addison and the ghost of Cato in one of the most notorious suicides of the eighteenth century. Grub Street author, parliamentarian, and gentleman of the bar, Budgell had become involved in intrigue and litigation following the collapse of the South Sea Bubble and eventually committed suicide by plunging overboard into the Thames from a rented boat, his pockets weighted with stones. Theophilus Cibber's account in The Lives of the Poets suggests that Budgell had unsuccessfully tried to persuade his young natural daughter to die with him. In any case he left behind one [82/83]of the most famous suicide notes in English history: "What Cato did and Addison approved, /Cannot be wrong."(Cibber, vol. 5, p. 13)

In the eighteenth century, Budgell's death functioned as a point of contention in a continuing battle over the heroism of Cato's suicide. Those of a stoical bent cited Cato's bravery; those of conservative religious convictions condemned Cato outright. "Theophilus," for example, a correspondent to the London Journal (August 1724), wrote that were Cato or Brutus to meet a contemporary English felo-de-se, they would surely declare him a madman or fool. The same writer went on to suggest that this was because Cato and Brutus had not the benefit of Christian morality regarding suicide. Later, in the nineteenth century, sentiments like those of "Theophilus" were intensively echoed and reechoed. Clergymen, themselves well schooled in the classics, counselled caution in emulating the ancients. Stoics like Cato might be models of how to think, how to write, and even of how to be, but certainly not of how to die. In an 1812 Congregational sermon, The Dreadful Sin of Suicide, George Clayton warned against the "unrestricted and unguarded study of Greek and Roman classics which have long been considered as the essential basis of a learned and elegant education. We imbibe, even in our boyhood, the most false and dangerous notions of honour; we are taught to form erroneous conceptions of glory, and are dazzled" (49). Turning more specifically to Cato and Budgell, Clayton resumed:

But how does Cato die? And what was the effect of the exhibition on the mind of the unhappy Mr. Budgel [sic], who, on retiring (as it is supposed) from the theatre, plunged into the Thames and was found with this defence on his person: — "What Cato did, and Addison approv'd, /Must needs be right." [54]

The powerful fear of imitative suicide in the nineteenth century extended even to the example of the ancients, whose self-imposed deaths came to seem like a form of exhibitionism to Christian apologists like Clayton.

Similar attitudes became pervasive in later decades of the century. In 1824 Solomon Piggott warned that the "elements of a learned and elegant education contain in them the seeds of poison; they convey the most dangerous notions of honour, and false glory, and imaginary greatness; and some of the Pagan philosophers and heroes whom we are taught most to admire even praise and extol the crime of suicide" (218-219). Piggott found poison aplenty in Cato's suicide and in Addison's rendition of it but felt he had an antidote for such poison in the Bible. Job, not Cato, was to be the proper guide for Piggott's readers. Piggott's study, aptly entitled Suicide and Its Antidotes, was the nineteenth century's [83/84] last full-scale religious text discussing suicide. In 1840 came Forbes Winslow's pioneering medical history of suicide, yet it too opened with a chapter on ancient suicides and another warning against "an undue reverence for the authority of antiquity" (1). Winslow posited three causes for the famous suicides of antiquity: avoidance of suffering, vindication of honor, and demonstration of exemplary behavior. To his mind, only the first class was "excusable" (2), so that Cato also came under harsh judgment from moralistic Winslow. Far from being courageous and magnanimous in death, Winslow's Cato was prideful, timid, "enfeebled," "depressed," distracted, and disappointed. In fact he sounds more like a victim of Victorian tedium vitae than a defeated Roman warrior. Moreover, to the alienist Winslow, Cato appeared not only despondent but insane:

It was not the placid, judicious Cato of former years, but the depressed Cato, impos mentis, committing a rash action, contrary to all his former great reasoning, and virtuous persevering conduct. It was, in fact, Cato's act of insanity; it was not dying to serve his country, but to effectually rob Caesar of his eminent services; it therefore appears more the effect of private pique and despondency than a demonstration of public virtue or courage. [5]

Here Winslow does what many Victorians chose to do with the ancients: he transforms Cato into a Victorian in antique dress. Winslow's Cato has become what Frank Turner calls a "distant contemporary" (xii), an ancient resurrected as a modern. Winslow recalls him in order to make him a surrogate Victorian and then show the timelessness of Winslow's own views of suicide. Cato becomes one of Winslow's cases, retrospectively diagnosed, sealed, and delivered to the author's Victorian readers.

Through to the end of the century, medical texts on suicide — like William Wynn Westcott's Suicide (1885) and S.A.K. Strahan's Suicide and Insanity (I893) — opened with backward glances at ancient suicide. Strahan found it both "interesting and instructive" to look "hastily at voluntary death as it occurred among the ancients." It would enable him "to contrast the suicide of past ages with that of today, to see in what they differ, and aid us in endeavouring to discover the causes of such differences as may be found to exist" (1). Yet a far more popular forum for evaluating historical suicides than medical texts was the poetry of the age. Elizabeth Barrett Browning warned her fellow poets that

To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce,
Cry out for togas and the picturesque,
Is fatal, — foolish too. [163]

Nonetheless, many of the most famous of her male, classically trained contemporaries paid her little heed. If novelists were turning a penny by sensationalizing[84/85] suicide, poets seized the day by appealing to a more serious audience. Both university men like Matthew Arnold and Tennyson and working-class men like Thomas Cooper cried out for togas when looking for ways to present the compelling subject of suicide.

Matthew Arnold

In the late 1840s Arnold looked to ancient suicides as a source of comfort for his readers and a means of self-definition for himself. In "Courage" (written 1849 or 1850) he turns to Cato to help settle his own unease over the philosophical question of the will. Like Carlyle, Arnold believed that the Victorians "must tame our rebel will" (141), but like Byron, he also prized the force of rebellious souls. For him Cato was an exemplar of utter courage:

Yes, be the second Cato praised!
Not that he took the course to die —
But that, when 'gainst himself he raised
His arm, he raised it dauntlessly. [13-16]

Characteristically, Arnold compared Victorian lack of willful determination with ancient resoluteness:

Our bane, disguise it as we may,
Is weakness, is a faltering course.
Oh that past times could give our day,
Joined to its clearness, of their force! [25-28]

After penning these words, Arnold certainly continued in his admiration of ancient virtues. But in the early 1850s he would suppress his earlier fascination with ancient suicides. "Courage" appeared in his 1852 volume of poems but was not included in the 1853 collection and was never again reprinted by Arnold. Likewise "Empedocles on Etna," the title poem of the 1852 edition, was removed from the 1853 Poems, Second Series.

In the famous preface to the 1853 volume, Arnold formally states what he believes were his aims in writing "Empedocles." He had quite deliberately sought a distant contemporary in the ancient philosopher:

I intended to delineate the feelings of one of the last of the Greek religious philosophers ... living on into a time when the habits of Greek thought and feeling had begun fast to change, character to dwindle. the influence of the Sophists to prevail. Into the feelings of a man so situated there entered much that we are accustomed to consider as exclusively modern ... What those who are familiar only with the great monuments of early Greek genius suppose to be its exclusive characteristics, have disappeared; the calm, the cheerfulness, the disinterested objectivity have disappeared: the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced; modern problems have presented themselves. [Arnold, 591][85/86]

Certainly Arnold himself shared the alienation of Empedocles. "Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born" (288), or, as David Sonstroem so ably paraphrased it, "one death and the other powerless to be life" (13). Arnold created an Empedocles who duplicated his own distress. Arnold's friend J. C. Shairp wrote to Clough in the summer of 1849 that Matt "was working at an 'Empedocles' — which seemed to be not much about the man who leaps in the crater — but his name and outward circumstances are used for the drapery of his own thoughts" (Shairp's letter to Clough is quoted in Tinker and Lowry, p. 124). If Arnold saw the Victorians' similarity to his hero, Arnold's friends saw Matt's own likeness to Empedocles.

Still, Arnold would deny that likeness just as he would suppress his poetry of suicide. To Henry Dunn he discredited the notion that he used "Empedocles and Obermann as mouthpieces through which to vent [his] own opinions" (Tinker and Lowry, 287) By the early 1850s he no longer desired to describe and diagnose "modern problems" so much as he wanted to cure the modern malaise and heal himself in the bargain. He wrote Clough that "modern poetry can only subsist by ... becoming a complete magister vitae as the poetry of the ancients did: by including as it did religion with poetry" (Lowry, 124). Yet "Empedocles" presented what Arnold considered an unsatisfying "creed." Were it a satisfying one, said Arnold to Dunn, Empedocles "ought to have lived after delivering himself of it, not died" (as qtd. in Tinker and Lowry, 288). More than Cato, Empedocles had led Arnold to an impasse. Arnold's Cato had chosen death in preference to the end of freedom; for him to become Caesar's pawn was clearly a fate worse than suicide. But Arnold's Empedocles was in bondage not to a human conqueror but to his own unrest. His suicide put a desperate end to what Arnold felt were desperately unresolvable dilemmas. In 1853 his creator pronounced Empedocles as in a condition "in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done. In such situations there is inevitably something morbid, in the description of them something monotonous" (Arnold, 592)

Arnold's concern over and rejection of "Empedocles on Etna" lay partly in his fearful consciousness realized and signified in the poem — of the ultimate use of willpower: to end life. In Act I, Empedocles delivers a kind of Victorian sermon about the will to Pausanias. We must curb our wayward wills, do our duty, and stoically live out our existence, he tells his friend. Carlyle could have written this counsel. But in Act II, in his "dialogue of the mind with itself," Empedocles uses willpower in order to define himself through death. As Dwight Culler has observed, Arnold had read the Bhagavad Gita as well as the[86/87] fragments of Empedocles's philosophy and "realized that the disposition of one's mind at the hour of death is very important in determining the soul's state after death" (174). This disposition becomes all the more crucial when one realizes that for a post-romantic hero like Arnold's Empedocles — much as for the Empedocles of the fifth century B.C. — there would have been a primary responsibility to one's mental integrity. If youthful vitality, friends, and society all weary him, one thought — that of immortality — does not. Although Empedocles is clearly not after the "feigned" "bliss / Of doubtful future state" (PMA, I. 402-03) that Pausanias seems to desire, he still wishes "not to die wholly" (2. 406). For him immortality is neither eternal bliss nor endless reincarnation but rather a state of equilibrium achieved through a death that alone "can cut his oscillations short, and so / Bring him to poise" (2. 232-34). "There is," says Empedocles, "no other way" (2. 234)

To attain that poise, Empedocles must will to die at a moment of inner balance. Yet according to Empedocles's lesson to Pausanias, such poise cannot come about purely as a result of one's own free will. A man is wrong, says Empedocles, to "make his will / The measure of his rights" (I. 154-55). Instead he must take into consideration other elements at play in the universe and achieve poise within a context considerably broader than that of the self. Arnold's prose summary of this part of Empedocles's advice to Pausanias explains the idea in greater detail:

We have a will;
we find we cannot freely give it scope;
we are irritate, and account for it on different theories into which
we carry our irritation.
But took at the matter calmly.
We arrive, a new force, in a schon existent world of forces.
Our force can only have play so far as these other forms will let it .

In the poem itself, Empedocles goes on to remind Pausanias of some of "'these other forms'," which are also part of the universe. These must be reckoned with, regardless of one's will or even of one's state of purity:

Yet even when man forsakes
All sin — is just, is pure,
Abandons ail which makes
His welfare insecure
Other existences there are, that clash with ours.
Like us, the lightning-fires
Love to have scope and play;[87/88]
The stream, like us, desires
An unimpeded way;
Like us, the Libyan wind delights to roam at large. [I. 242-51]

These stanzas serve as a prophecy of what is to come when Empedocles is about to seal his own fate. He addresses the elements as his "friends" but does not at first accept their autonomy. Instead he proceeds to invest them with his own consciousness, his own "pent will." Only when he becomes aware of his use of the pathetic fallacy and endows the elements with their own state of being, does he become free to recognize the true power of Etna's volcano. Acknowledging that the volcano has a will just as he does, Empedocles realizes that he can attain poise only if their two wills become harmonious, and his soul now "glows" to meet the elements. Death is accomplished at a moment that promises him accord with what Arnold called the " schon existent world of forces" and allows the state of poise that brings immortality.

By putting his death under his own power, Empedocles has finally conquered those haunting self-doubts that tortured him throughout most of Act II, and the tension of Arnold's dramatic poem is fully resolved. Mind is now under the control of will, and doubt and paralysis are under the control of action. Thus Empedocles's suicide becomes like the suicide Antonin Artaud dreamed of and described so well:

By suicide, I reintroduce my design in nature, I shall for the first time give things the shape of my will. I free myself from the conditioned reflexes of my organs, which are so badly adjusted to my inner self, and life is for me no longer an absurd accident ... Now I choose my thought and the direction of my faculties, my tendencies, my reality ... I put myself in suspension, without innate propensities, neutral, in the state of equilibrium. [Artaud, 56]

In a sense, Arnold was too good an historian. His Empedocles became such a close contemporary that Arnold rejected his poem as being too modern. Through Empedocles Arnold solved the problem of Victorian Angst; he offered willed death as a final confirmation of personhood in times when society threatens to dissolve personal identity. But he was repelled by his poem's fitting resolution; it did not meet his extra-literary needs. He had once told Clough that the spectacle of the 1848 revolution in France would be a "fine one" to an "historical swift-kindling man, who is not over-haunted by the pale thought, that after all man's shiftings of posture, 'restat vivere'" (Lowry, 68). For Arnold himself it remained to will life, not to plunge into revolutionary self-destruction. "Empedocles on Etna" functioned as a kind of eloquent suicide note that negated the need for suicide itself. it was a substitution of sign for experience. Through displacement to Empedocles, Arnold found that "the dialogue of the mind with itself" led to the brink of suicide, He then withdrew himself and his work from the crater's edge and turned toward the more personally acceptable role of Victorian sage.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

In his own use of ancient suicide Tennyson was quite different from Arnold. The poet laureate did need to dissociate himself from his modern poems about potential suicides. "Supposed Confessions" was withdrawn from the volumes after 1830 and republished only in 1884; and in reference to his presumed likeness to the narrator of Maud, Tennyson quipped, "Adulterer I may be, murderer I may be, suicide I am not yet" (quoted by Sir Charles Tennyson 286). But when it came to the ancient Lucretius, Tennyson sought the philosopher's differences from himself more than his similarities and avoided the problem of identification. Arnold's Empedocles is a sympathetic character. Like Arnold and so many Victorians, he looks anxiously for religious reintegration with the universe. Tennyson's Lucretius is an embodiment of materialistic philosophy and served as a warning to the Victorians to turn toward a more spiritual existence.

In 1866, two years before the publication of "Lucretius," Tennyson told Bradley that he approved of a Parisian who ordered and ate a good dinner and then committed suicide, covering his face with a chloroformed handkerchief. "That's what I should do," said Tennyson "if I thought there was no future life" (Tennyson, 1897; 35) Earlier, in "The Two Voices" (1833), Tennyson's ambivalent persona was saved from suicide and a tempter's voice only by a redemptive Sabbath voice that bid him live. The poet implied fear of external condemnation but hope of grace and transcendence for the death-wisher. Tennyson's Lucretius, on the other hand, is trapped in ancient Rome and precluded from any hope of an afterlife. If they exist, his gods are indifferent to him. The original Lucretius was an Epicurean who denied the soul's immortality. Tennyson — like St. Jerome whose Chronicle was probably his source — was determined to discredit Lucretian philosophy.

What sympathy one feels for Tennyson's Lucretius stems from his victimization by a love philtre. Discouraged by Lucretius's sexual coldness, his wife has administered the drug that has sent the philosopher over the brink. Lucretius now dreams only of his violent atomistic universe and of maddening, voluptuous women. In his waking moments, he discourses on suicide. If the gods exist, why not join them in their calm withdrawal? If they do not, why not die, enter the atomistic universe, and end the lustful dreams? As it is, Lucretius is blasted "with animal heat and dire insanity" (1213). Tennyson has brought his monologist to a state of dissipation, madness, and despair that most Victorians would have immediately associated with suicide. Through the use of the philtre, he has also paralyzed Lucretius's will:[89/90]

But now it seems some unseen monster lays
His vast filthy hands upon my will,
Wrenching it backward into his. [ll. 219-21]

Made beast by this demon, Lucretius resolves to commit suicide in an effort to reassert his humanity:

Why should I, beastlike as I find myself,
Not manlike end myself? — our privilege —
What beast has heart to do it? And what man,
What Roman would be dragg'd in triumph thus? Not I. [ll. 231-35]

Like Arnold's restless Empedocles, Lucretius wishes union with "Great Nature" — but unlike him he is wearier and expects only reincarnation or atomization, not reintegration. Richard Jebb, the famous Victorian classicist, caught the essence of their difference in a review of "Lucretius" for Marmillan's: "Empedocles died because he could not find peace; Lucretius, because he had found and lost it" (Jebb, 103) From the point of view of Tennyson's Lucretius, both Lucretius himself and his work are ended; his "soul flies out and dies in the air" (PT, 273), Thus Tennyson here presents suicidal willpower as manly but not redemptive. But again, as line 234 so carefully states, Lucretius was a "Roman," not a Victorian. For the Victorians Tennyson implied other choices, and most of his contemporaries inferred as much and liked what they inferred, Jebb lauded Tennyson's historical accuracy, while others applauded Tennyson's message. Only the reviewer for the Christian Observer missed the moral and berated "the first poet of this Christian land" for rendering "the benighted sentiments of a heathen philosopher heading for self destruction" (Shannon, 146-186).

Thomas Cooper's Purgatory of Suicides

Many such heathen philosophers were rendered by Thomas Cooper in his grandiloquent if often puzzling Purgatory of Suicides (1845), a work he called a "mind-history." Imprisoned for two years for Chartist activities, Cooper wrote the Purgatory during his confinement. It is a ponderous poem in ten books, framed in Spenserians and presenting men and women of many eras, all of whom have taken their lives and await a paradise on earth while serving out purgatorial years in a large cavern. The parallels to Cooper's own imprisonment are obvious. His suicides too are distant contemporaries, like Cooper awaiting a better day, and through them Cooper purged some of his own bitterness and despair. Each book opens with an exordium offering Cooper's own feelings and finishes with a look at the suicides. The point of it all is radical in every sense of the word: Cooper questions whether life is worth living in a world so rife with oppression and cruelty. Possibly the suicides have [90/91]shown wisdom in electing death. Yet Cooper recoils from the thought of utter annihilation and places his hope in the world of tomorrow.

An amazing autodidact, Cooper chose liberally from among ancient suicides. Carbo attracted him because Cooper was convinced that the orator destroyed himself out of intolerance for his countrymen's vices. Lucretius served him as counsellor to a love-tormented Sappho; Lucretius informs her that despite her individual misery, "the Universe is perfect" (9.45). Empedocles, on the other hand, is for Cooper a far less noble character. The pride and aspiration toward immortality that had captured Arnold's imagination repelled Chartist Cooper who envisions Empedocles on a mountain, sitting "with raised right hand to mock the pomp of Jove / Hurling his lightnings" (PS, 2.24). Clearly, working-class Cooper despised such pretension. His Empedocles needs reproofs by two others of Cooper's ancients to help bring him to his senses. Cleombrorus first calls his bluff, pointing out the pride and folly inherent in pretending to be a god, while Indian Calamus finds him a total fraud:

                                           but I joy
That Vulcan's fabled forge cast out, in scorn,
The sandal's brazen soles, for base alloy,
And thus the flimsy veil in twain has torn
That hid thy apish godhead. (PS, 2.64)

Neither Cooper's tough free-thinking nor his sentimental overlay of Christianity can brook the hubris implicit in Empedocles's famous leap into Etna. The mountain did well to belch up humble footware as evidence of the philosopher's vulnerability. Thus Empedocles became no surrogate self for Cooper. Exercise of pretended godhead and great efforts of willpower were not of much use to an incarcerated Chartist in the late 1840s. Still, his long look at suicide enabled Cooper to urge his fellows of the working class not to accept willed death as an alternative to deliverance but rather to fight through to deliverance itself. Meanwhile in his Purgatory they could read with pleasure about the spectacle of the latter-day ruling-class vainglorious who destroyed themselves as had Castlereagh.

As the century progressed, Victorian poets turned less to ancient suicides than to modern for their poems about self-destruction. Suicide laws became more lenient and classical education less prevalent, and it seemed more permissible to represent contemporary self-destructives. To many Victorians it also became more obvious that the ancients were not really contemporaries after all. A writer for Chambers's magazine in 1884 observed that[97/92] this differs essentially from the suicidal era of the ancients, being psychical rather than physical. Whereas theirs was born of sheer exhaustion and satiety, with want of belief in a future state of existence, that of the present day is the melancholy of a restless and unceasingly analysing soul, eternally brooding over the insoluble problems 'Whence?' and 'Whither?' which disordered state not unfrequently leads to incapacity for action, and finally to inability to live ("Suicide,", Chambers, 293).

Strahan too had to admit that "what were the chief causes of suicide among the ancients have ceased to be incentives to self-destruction among European peoples today" (25). George Meredith had already realized this thirty years earlier and had created a contemporary version of the restless, brooding, analyzing soul in the narrator of Modern Love (1862) — a man confused and anxious over the suicide of his wife. Past personal history was difficult enough to fathom, let alone ancient history. For Meredith's part, Empedocles could be consigned to bathos:

     He leaped.
With none to hinder,
Of Aetna's fiery scoriae
In the next vomit-shower, made he
     A more peculiar cinder.
And this great Doctor, can it be,
He left no saner recipe
For men at issue with despair?
Admiring, even his poet owns,
While noting his fine lyric tones,
The last of him was heels in air! (rpt. in Meredith, 1978; 544)

Robert Browning's Red Cotton Night-Cap Country

As Meredith's career attests, not all poets disagreed with Elizabeth Barrett's exhortation to leave off depicting togas and start representing "the age, / their age" (AL, 163). Nevertheless, more often than not Victorian poetry of suicide involved displacement — if not to another time, then to another culture. When, for example, Barrett's husband wrote of suicide, he preferred French to English subjects. Among them were three men in a Paris morgue in "Apparent Failure" (1864) and a religious fanatic in contemporary Normandy in Red Cotton Night-Cap Country (1873). Red Cotton Night-Cap Country or Turf and Towers certainly offers an odd sort of displacement, a serious, pseudo-factual look at "heels in air." It is the story of a Paris jeweller named Leonce Miranda and is based both on hearsay and on public records of an actual case. Browning's Miranda is a troubled man. Raised in the village of St. Rambert, he blindly accepts the local religious lore and wholeheartedly believes in the miracles of La Ravissante, a statue of the Virgin housed in a nearby church of the same name. His religious aspirations are symbolized by the "towers" of the Church, represented in Browning's subtitle[92/93] — But Miranda has another aspect. Also drawn by the "turf," the earthv side of life, he forms a liaison with the blossomlike Clara de Millefleurs, and then renovates an old Clairvaux Priory for their love nest. Soon afterwards, Miranda's mother activates terrible conflict within her son. Playing upon his guilt, she suggests that his life with Clara endangers his spiritual life. In despair over seeing no possible resolution to this conflict, Miranda attempts but fails to commit suicide in the Seine. Shortly thereafter Miranda's mother dies, and an even more guilt-ridden Miranda vows to relinquish "turf" forever. Violently he burns off his hands in an effort to destroy Clara's letters, and eventually he mounts to the Belvedere atop Clairvaux and attempts to fly to the distant steeple of La Ravissante to prove his faith: "A sublime spring from the balustrade ... / A flash in middie-air, and stone-dead lay / Monsieur Leonce Miranda on the turf" (767).

Sensational in the extreme, this is the outline of Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, a poem that Browning claimed was so factual that he was forced to alter the names of his characters to avoid a libel suit. Yet from the outset Browning did distort fact. When his friend Milsand told him the story of Mellerio (the original name of Miranda), without consulting the records, Browning immediately "concluded that there was no intention of committing suicide" and said to himself that he would "treat the subject just so" (See Siegchrist, 16). Furthermore, when he did look at the documents of the case, he changed and omitted facts at will. Mellerio's immersion in the Seine was originally reported only to have been a bath; in his last two years Mellerio was seen by all concerned as degenerating in mind and body; and in the court case that followed Mellerio's death, the plaintiffs argued in favor of a verdict of suicidal lunacy (Siegchrist, ch. 5). Browning, however, converted Mellerio's story into a kind of Pyrrhic victory. His final leap becomes an act of faith and courage, prefaced by a long, sympathetic soliloquy in which Miranda reveals his belief that the Virgin Mary's angels will bear him to La Ravissante.

Browning had reasons for his fanciful distortions of record. Like Empedocles, Miranda is a surrogate Englishman. Through him Browning transports suicide across the Channel and harries the French for their hypocrisy in trying to reconcile turf and tower by looking first one way, then the other. At the same time he focuses on English concerns, for if the English Victorians were less likely than the French to hold double standards, they were quite as likely to suffer conflicting desires. As Jerome Buckley describes Victorian society, it "was forever subject to tensions which militated against complete spontaneity and singleness of purpose" (13). Such tensions are reflected in Victorian poetic characters like Empedocles and Miranda and are resolved only by their deaths. For[93/94] his part Browning was not so troubled over this kind of resolution as Arnold had been. His Miranda is neither so bright nor so admirable as Arnold's Empedocles. Instead Miranda is a fascinating, if sympathetic, example of how not to be. He foolishly brings a brand of medieval faith into the nineteenth century and dies a fruitless and anachronistic death. He fails to realize what Browning himself persistently attempted to convey in his poems: that body and soul are counterparts and must dwell comfortably together. Tensions were the essence of life for Browning; not to waiver was to die. In Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, Browning neither condemns materialism, as did Tennyson, nor exalts Miranda's choice:

Miranda hardly did his best with life:
He might have opened eye, exerted brain,
Attained conception as to right and law
In certain points respecting intercourse
Of man with woman — love, one likes to say;

Also, the sense of him should have sufficed
For building up some better theory
Of how God operates in heaven and earth,
Than would establish Him participant
In doings yonder at The Ravissante.
The heart was wise according to its lights
And limits; but the head refused more sun,
And shrank into its mew, and craved less space. [771]

Browning's contemporaries were less satisfied with Red Cotton Night-Cap Country than was Browning. Although they relished sensationalism in newspapers and novels and would love The Ring and the Book (1868-69), they felt uneasy over sensational poetry sans togas or other exotic garb. The reviewer for The Spectator did not think that Browning "succeeded in giving any true poetic excuse for telling a story so full of disagreeable elements" (as qtd. in Litzinger and Smalley, 378) like suicide, and most reviewers agreed. Only Chesterton felt it "worth noting that Browning was one of those wise men who can perceive the terrible and impressive poetry of the police-news which is commonly treated as vulgarity, which is dreadful and may be undesirable, but is certainly not vulgar" (see Siegchrist, 14).

Walter Pater

Anything but vulgar, Walter Pater — like Browning — looked across the English Channel for examples of self-destructiveness. In his Imaginary Portraits (1887) he colored his history with fiction and invented a semi-factual medium for hunting distant contemporaries. In his "Sebastian van Storck," he set that medium to work on the problem of suicide. Like Tennyson's "Lucretius," the portrait is an admonition[94/95] against materialism, but it is an even stronger warning against nihilism. Young Sebastian lives in seventeenth-century Holland at the peak of Dutch power and prosperity. As a member of a prominent, well-to-do family, he appears to have a life of ease and affluence ahead of him. Instead, he opts for a self-destroying philosophy of negation that he patterns partially on Spinoza and through which he has "come to think of all definite forms of being, the warm pressure of life, the cry of nature itself, as no more than a troublesome irritation on the surface of the one absolute mind" (Pater, 1964; 130) In Sebastian there is no Miranda-like war between sensuality and spiritualism. A convinced intellectual, he is determined to silence his senses in order to join "the calm surface of the absolute, untroubled mind" (IP, 132). For him the ever-present sea becomes a metaphor for that desired surface — "barren and absolutely lovely" (IP,133).

From the outset there is little contest in Sebastian's mind between Dutch materialism and this nihilistic monism, although seventeenth-century Holland, according to Walter Pater, was not a wholly unattractive place. It had "a minute and busy wellbeing" (IP, 117) rather like its famed genre paintings, which were "of the earth earthy — genuine red earth of old Adam" (IP, 118). Sebastian soundly rejects this welter of wellbeing and art, refusing to become a part either of his prominent family or of the family portrait for which his mother begs him to sit. He will not help immortalize either materialism or materiality in paint. "Why add," he muses, "by a forced and artificial production, to the monotonous tide of competing, fleeting experience" (IP, 119). He also turns his back on the one eligible young woman who sheds a bit of warmth on his cold isolation. Instead he continues to long for pallid absolutes:

He seemed, if one may say so, in love with death; preferring winter to summer; finding only a tranquillising influence in the thought of the earth beneath our feet cooling down for ever from its old cosmic beat- watching pleasurably how their colours fled out of things, and the long sand-bank in the sea, which had been the rampart of a town, was washed down in its turn (IP, 126).

Pater clearly did not side with Sebastian's choice. A lover of color, variety, and flux, Parer accepted finiteness. In Plato and Platonism he called "the literal negation of self" a "kind of moral suicide" (Pater, 1928; 33), and in "Sebastian van Storck" he appears to lead Sebastian toward just such a death. When his hero thinks of the dead, primeval Dutch, he has "the odd fancy that he himself would like to have been dead and gone as long ago, with a kind of envy of those whose deceasing was so long since over" (IP, 123). Eventually, Sebastian goes to the sea to make this[95/96] death wish a reality. What Pater calls his "dark fanaticism" has created a correspondingly "black melancholy" in him (IP, 135), and he desires to "make 'equation' between himself and what was not himself" (IP, 137). Ironically, nature, flux, and fate take over the initiative in Sebastian's death. No calm oceanic surface greets him, but "an undulation of the sea the like of which had not occurred in that province for half a century" (IP, 137). Sebastian is found dead after having saved the life of a small child whom he has placed in a high tower out of the reach of the ravaging sea. His intended suicide has altered to an heroic self-sacrifice.

"Sebastian van Storck" was a kind of parable for Victorians, another study in wrong thinking. Clearly Sebastian's philosophy is suspect. Because death is inevitable, Pater intimates, one does not need to die before one's time. Pater discountenances Sebastian's retreat from family, from love, from responsibility, and from society. His hero, he tells us, is diseased, the victim both of the black melancholy and of tuberculosis. He is a sick man of Europe, a contemplator of romantic suicide — an affliction that Pater seems to have considered out of place in any era or culture but typical of many times and many places. Certainly Sebastian affords no tonic for life-weary Victorians, but then neither does the rest of Pater's seventeenth-century Holland. If Sebastian is too withdrawn from the society around him, that society is itself less than ideal, beset as it is by parental pressures and overeager husband hunters. And in any case, bourgeois Dutch civilization is also soon to come to an end. According to Pater, tuberculosis will strike Europe as it has stricken Sebastian and will attack "people grown somewhat over-delicate in their nature by the effects of modern luxury" (IP, 137). These words, the last of Pater's portrait, am surely cautionary. As Knoepflmacher says, all of Pater's "fictional recreations of the past are conditioned by the needs of the present" (1964, 142). It is as though Pater were urging, "Wake up Victorians! end romantic suicide, look out for nihilism, beware of materialism, and live!"

But live how? Pater suggests no easy answers. Compassion reaches his Sebastian only by chance and only in extremis. Nevertheless it does lay hold of him in the end, much as it does Marius in Pater's Marius the Epicurean (1885). Like Pater, Marius believes in the life of the senses but finds himself in need of moral prerogatives. In searching for them, he rejects first philosophical materialism and then idealism and comes to the emptiness of relativism. Ultimately he dies in place of one of his Christian friends, a self-sacrifice not unlike that of Sebastian. Thus readers of Marius are offered a rather unconvincing and sentimental "Nachshein of Christianity," what Knoepflmacher calls "the Christian [96/97] death of a pagan by an almost accidental act Of Will" (1964; 220) Such enfeebled Christianity glimmers only weakly and only at the ends of the stories of two men whose "age and our own," as Pater would say of Marius, "have much in common — many difficulties and hopes" (1926; 183). Pater attempted to choose those difficulties and hopes with a scholar's skill and to embellish seventeenth-century Holland and Antonine Rome with somber shades from an artist's palate. Yet in doing so he ultimately reinforced a belief that the sensitive intellectual's fate seemed suicidal no matter what culture or what time one might examine. For people like Pater displacement came hard. Their own selective sense of history and their own sense of despair kept telling them "plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose."

Biased selectivity in choosing historical examples had begun to trouble historians, if not litterateurs, earlier in the century. It had become more apparent that "who controls the present controls the past" (Orwell, 251). Lessons from the past were never really selected randomly but with a taste for timeliness. People like Julius Hare lost all respect for historians who "not having the right insight into the necessary distinctions of ages and nations . . . measure others by their own standard and therefore misjudge them" (Hare, 71). Later in the century, A. P. Stanley voiced kindred concern because he felt that "in historical matters, the power of seeing differences cannot be too highly prized. The tendency of ordinary men is to invest every age with the attributes of their own time" (191-192).

Stanley's dissatisfaction arose during a period when history was no longer the only window for viewing alternate kinds of human experience. By the third and fourth quarters of the nineteenth century, social anthropology had begun to come into its own, revealing customs and beliefs of peoples far removed from Western civilization and its roots in ancient Greece and Rome. In 1861, in his classic study of Ancient Law, Sit Henry Maine surmised that "the tone of thought common among [the British] would be materially affected if we had vividly before us the relation of the progressive races to the totality of life" (18). By the 1880s that tone of thought had altered sufficiently to make cultural relativism a main focus of the new field of anthropology and a new dimension in writings about suicide. And by 1898, when Strahan opened chapter one of his Suicide and Insanity, he could begin with the subheading "Suicide in Early Times and among Primitive Peoples." The latter topic now fascinated his contemporaries, who generally still defined the primitive broadly to mean both atavistic and non-Western. They gave themselves free rein to survey the exotic suicidal customs of the world. Sir James Frazer turned to Africans and Eskimos, while Edward Westermarck looked at dozens of other cultures (see Frazer, and Westermarck), but nearly all [97/98] anthropologically inclined students of suicide sooner or later studied the Indian practice of suttee, the self-immolation of wives on their husbands' funeral pyres.

The British Obsession with Indian Suttee

The British were obsessed with suttee, an obsession attested to by the thousands of pages of parliamentary papers devoted to its consideration. Beginning in 1815, in India the British Raj instituted a system to police suttee in an attempt to insure against unwilling sacrifices and deaths of young girls who had not yet reached puberty. At home, public opinion against the practice grew as returning missionaries sought opposition against suttee, By 1829 Lord Bentinck, Governor General of India, had wholly banned suttee, although it continued throughout the century in spite of the ban. The surprising thing about this particular British obsession was that suttee, though appalling to Westerners then as now, was neither so prevalent nor so widespread as British attention to it would suggest. From 1817 to 1827 there were some four thousand suttees in a population of over 160 million, and most of those were localized to Bengal — Calcutta in particular. In an essay on colonial death ritual, C. A. Bayley speculates that nineteenth-century concern over suttee was intensive because, beginning in about 1820, feelings against Hinduism ran high, and suttee was the most blatantly barbaric custom that could be used in an anti-Hindu campaign (173). But the concern was certainly also a displacement. Increased attention to suttee paralleled not just anti-Hinduism but an ensuing interest in and fear of self-destruction that came with altered suicide law after 1823, and later in the century, with a fear of "redundant women" — a term used to refer to a surplus of unmarried females; see for example "Excess Of Widows over Widowers" WR, 502-505). Commentators on suicide showed interest in suttee beginning with Piggott, who in 1824 compared the self-immolation of Hindu widows with what he considered to be the nobler self-sacrifices of Europeans. Hindu wives he saw simply as barbaric life-wasters. "How different is this," he believed, "from that voluntary sacrifice of life to achieve durable benefits for our country, for the world, for our own souls, and for God; where heroic virtue excites the true patriot to daring deeds of valour and the imminent risk of personal safety, or where the love of God and our Saviour animates the Christian to the greatest of privations, and to embrace the burning stake!" (150-151) It seems never to have occurred to Piggott that he had found a parallel more than a contrast, that he had uncovered a Brahmin belief as deeply held as any Christian one. Increasingly, interest in suttee was also a manifestation of the feminization of suicide. Manv Victorians wanted to believe that "redundant women" had really no place to go but toward death. Suttee offered a flagrant case in point and was sufficiently distanced from England to become a topic for open discussion. The British were [98/99] shocked at the Indians' apparent solution to redundancy but were fascinated by it all the same.

Investigators of suttee later in the century did not share Piggott's brand of cultural blindness. As Maine realized, it was becoming necessary for imperialist Britain to try to understand colonial customs — even this most puzzling form of self-destruction. Maine himself tried to explain suttee in terms of law. In Roman law, legal obligation and religious duty had been separated; in Hindu law, on the other hand, the religious element acquired "complete predominance," Family sacrifices became "the keystone of all the law of Persons and much of the law of Things" (213). Therefore contemporary Britons had to view suttee in terms of an entirely foreign legal framework in order to judge it at all. Strahan, too, in his treatise on suicide and the insane, marvelled over but accepted what seemed to be Brahmin "contempt" for life (2), as did his late-century contemporaries in anthropology. What Strahan termed "contempt," Frazer called Eastern "indifference to human life which seems so strange to the Western mind" (141).

Meanwhile Edward Westermarck, the influential Finn who taught at the London School of Economics, directed himself toward non-Western peoples as exemplars of high culture. Chinese and Japanese civilizations seemed especially relevant to his discussion of suicide. Westermarck saw Oriental suicides as honorable in the extreme and observed that "in spite of imperial prohibitions, sutteeism of widowed wives and brides has continued to flourish in China down to this day, and meets with the same public applause as ever" (242). Westermarck's extensive global survey of suicide, which included primitive peoples, led him to two important conclusions. The first was that because attendant circumstances and notions about future life vary so enormously from suicide to suicide and culture to culture, moral valuation also must vary to "an extreme degree" (261). Westermarck's second conclusion was that the more lenient judgment passed upon suicide "by the public conscience of the present time" (263-264) was unlikely to be regressive.

Thus by the end of the century historical displacement seemed naive, and the safety net once afforded by cultural displacement had come to resemble a maze. If other peoples in other places were to be of use in distancing one's own fears of suicide, they had first to be understood on their own terms, possibly even on their own turf. Such difficulties did not, however, prohibit many late Victorian anthropologists from pronouncing rigid moral judgments against suicide. The final version of a chapter in Frazer's Golden Bough concludes with these shrill and scathing words:[99/100]

According to one account, the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles, who set up for being a god in his lifetime, leaped into the crater of Etna in order to establish his claim to godhead. There is nothing incredible in the tradition. The crackbrained philosopher, with his itch for notoriety, may well have done what Indian fakirs and brazen-faced mountebank Peregrinus did in antiquity, and what Russian peasants and Chinese Buddhists have done in modern times. There is no extremity to which fanaticism or vanity, or a mixture of the two, will not impel its victims. [181]

Victorian taboos against suicide faded slowly, even in the new light of cultural relativism, a light that sometimes failed Victorian luminaries.

Last modified 12 May 2023