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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Poetry and Pain: Reading the Victorians through Grief

In my twenties, I stopped reading poetry regularly. Yet, turn to it for moments of reflection and particularly when in early stages of grieving. Maybe I prefer abstraction to clear thought. Maybe it’s become a habit. Maybe it’s not being able to read much clearly when in that state. Or may be the words of poetry can starkly pinpoint the pain of grief.

When dad was dying, I read T.S. Eliot’s East Coker. After he died, I scatter gun read Emily Dickinson’s The Complete Poems – that is I’d randomly open the book and read whatever poem jumped out at me. I did this for a week and 7 weeks on, I still can’t get this short one out of my head:


To die – without the Dying

And live – without the Life

This is the hardest Miracle

Propounded to Belief. (c. 1865)

A Greek tragedian would think it fated that the anniversary of the death of my baby daughter has come to take place in National Grief Awareness Week. The aim of the Good Grief Trust this year is to ‘open conversations and normalise grief’ during 2-8 December; a time when it seems everyone is focused on Christmas and manufactured happiness ('They bring me sorrow touch'd with joy, /The merry merry bells of Yule'). I certainly craved feeling normal after her loss and eight years ago. In part of my desire for normalcy, I looked for things to read to make me feel that I was not alone. Some friends gave me Her Birth by Rebecca Goss about her own chronically sick baby who died 18 months after she was born. I returned to this book many times, particularly when I got pregnant again 9 months later.

two prints in black and white - one of a man reading a book by a fire and words The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold snd the other of a man kneeling before a woman dressed in Ancient Greek dress
The frontispiece from my copy of Matthew Arnold's poems.

I read forums and blogs by people who had lost a baby, but none of them (unsurprisingly) combined my situation of years of failed fertility treatment, adoption, being ‘geriatric’ and an unexpected pregnancy. They also, fortunately, were writing or consoling each other in a time when such loss is unusual and rarely spoken about. Neither could I bear the focus on angels and religious sentiment. Supposedly soothing beliefs made me furious; no doubt one of the ‘stages’ in grief. The idea that a benign god could have ‘a plan’ that involved such pain made me want to kick in a church window. It mirrored the anger and doubt I felt when I heard my gran’s grim hacking cough during her months of chemotherapy in my teens. When I lost my religious ‘sea of faith’ at 17 it was the Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach (1867) that I read over and over:

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating to the breath

Of the night-wind down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

First edition of book in which Dover Beach published. Birmingham and Midlands Institute Library

After the loss of Emily, voices from nineteenth-century poetry and letters and the grief of people long dead were more familiar to me than the contemporary ones on forums. Probably because I was used to feeling with their language. Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H. (1850) to the memory of his friend Arthur Hallam is one of the most famous poems on grief ever written - his take on Christmas is quoted above. It does not shy away from the anger felt in grief. More than ever, I recognised, as Tennyson had, ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’. Although there is religious consolation within In Memoriam, it is questioning and, in parts, a bleak poem:

[. . .] but what am I?

An infant crying in the night?

An infant crying for the light?

And with no language but a cry. (LIV, 17-20)

Tennyson’s ‘cry in the night’ echoed my own cry. I felt less alone and in more company with him and his wife Emily when I read of his own personal loss.

The year in which In Memoriam was published, Alfred Tennyson finally married his fiancé Emily, after nearly two decades of hesitancy on his part. She was 37, almost as old as me when I was pregnant and medically considered a geriatric mother. Ten months after her marriage, Emily gave birth to a son. The Tennysons' son ‘died in being born’ on 20 April 1851. Alfred wrote sixty letters to friends and family about his son’s simultaneous birth and death as well as his fears for his wife. Emily was too sick to see or hold her first baby. She and Alfred went on to have two more sons, Hallam in 1852 and Lionel in 1854. Lionel later died at the age of 31 on 20 April 1885; the thirty-fourth anniversary of his oldest brother’s birth and death date. Emily wrote ‘such sorrows are beyond words’.* And yet words of sorrow are so important to express. Without them grief can feel like an abnormality.

In her loss of a baby at or shortly after birth, Emily Tennyson would not have been unusual in the Victorian period; infant death was common but not treated as commonplace. In her 1872 book of lullabies and rhymes for children Sing Song. A Nursery Rhyme Book, Christina G. Rossetti included seven poems about infant death. One hundred and twenty of the poems were illustrated by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Arthur Hughes with extensive direction by Rossetti herself (her original copy can be seen in the British Library). 'A baby's cradle with no baby in it' depicts a mother weeping over an empty cradle, while 'Why did baby die?' depicts a child and mother by a grave:

Words of a poem (repeated in the main text of the blog) with an image of a grave and a woman comforting a child.
Poem from a 1919 edition of Sing Song with illustration

Why did baby die,

making father sigh

Mother cry?

Flowers, that bloom to die,

Make no reply

Of “why”

But bow and die.

The poems do not soften the words 'die' or 'death' with euphemisms and they stress the omnipotence of death. Their focus is on the sorrow of those left living. The parallel image to the text often shows the grieving mother or siblings. These poems are interwoven among happier themes and sillier poems that speak to the experience of infant death as a normal one for childhood and parents, amongst all the joys and other emotions. In the early twentieth century such experience became, happily, less normal. A new edition of Rossetti's Sing Song in 1924, omitted forty-one poems, including all those about infant death. Whether this was because infant death was no longer so common or because the taste for displays of grief and talking about death had changed is unclear.**

Charlotte Brontë is known more for her novels that explore the interior lives of overlooked women but the loss and grief she and her family bore is part of the family legend. Her mother died when she was a young child and then each of her siblings died, leaving Charlotte to mourn them. She died in early stages of pregnancy leaving her father Patrick and her new husband alone. Emily, Anne and Charlotte all wrote poetry. We chose a poem Charlotte wrote for the death of her sister On the Death of Emily Jane Brontë for our own Emily's funeral service:

The nightly anguish thou art spared

When all the crushing truth is bared

To the awakening mind,

When the galled heart is pierced with grief,

Till wildly it implores relief,

But small relief can find.

And as for thinking about my own death, I return to Matthew Arnold. Arnold had six children. His son Basil died at 16 months old in 1868, his oldest son died at the age of sixteen the same year and in 1872 his second eldest died at the age of 19. He was buried, after a massive heart attack killed him in 1888, alongside his three sons. Stefan Collini writes that ‘Arnold proved to be an exceptionally affectionate and expressive father, whose spirits were permanently darkened by the early deaths of three of his sons’.*** In my graduate study I focused on Arnold’s cultural criticism but his later poems – he did not write so many after the late 1860s – have an intelligent sympathy that appeals to me. In the event his sudden heart attack meant that he avoided the ‘whispering, crowded room’ of a death bed that he described in A Wish. I share his wish to silently be ‘moved to the window’ to watch the sun and fervently hope that modern day drugs mean that, when I am dying, I do not linger long:

To have before my mind – instead

Of the sick-room, the mortal strife,

The turmoil for a little breath –

The pure eternal course of life,

Not human combatings with death.

Thus feeling, gazing, let me grow

Compos’d, refresh’d, enobled, clear;

Then willing let my spirit go

To work or wait elsewhere or here!


* Ann Thwaite (1997), Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife, London: Faber and Faber.

** This section on Rossetti's Sing Song was printed in an article for The Lancet Psychology here.

*** Collini, Stefan. "Arnold, Matthew (1822–1888), poet, writer, and inspector of schools." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 27 Nov. 2022.

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