Romanticism and Mortal Consciousness

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Romanticism and Mortal Consciousness

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Title: Romanticism and Mortal Consciousness
Author: Johnston, Richard Rutherford
Citation: Johnston, Richard Rutherford. 2013. Romanticism and Mortal Consciousness. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: The Romantic period coincides with a fundamental shift in Western attitudes toward death and dying. This dissertation examines how Romantic poets engage this shift. It argues that "Romantic mortal consciousness" - a form of mortal reflection characteristic of English Romantic poetry - is fundamentally social and political in its outlook and strikingly similar to what one might now call a liberal social consciousness. During the Romantic period, mortally conscious individuals, less able or willing to depend on old spiritual consolations, began to regard Death not as the Great Leveler of society but rather as a force that sealed social inequality into the records of history. Intimations of mortality forced one to look beyond the self and, to quote Keats, "think of the Earth." This dissertation considersthe development of Romantic mortal consciousness. Death’s transformation from the Great Leveler of social inequality into its crystallizing agent is evident in the Romantic response to Graveyard School poetry. This is the subject of my first chapter, which focuses on Gray’s "Elegy" and Wordsworth’s "The Ruined Cottage." Chapter Two examines Lord Byron’s Cain, where mortal consciousness transforms Cain’s personal lament about mortality into a protest on behalf of a doomed race. Cain anticipates death studies by dramatizing the shift from what Ariès calls the "death of the self" to the "death of the other" and by recognizing that mortality is essentially a cultural construct. However, the other idea of mortality as a solitary reckoning with death does not disappear entirely. Poems by Hemans and Keats, the subjects of my third and fourth chapters, show how the "death of the self" flourishes as the other side of Romantic mortal consciousness. Romantic mortal consciousness has centripetal and centrifugal aspects. It exhorts the ruminative soul to engage sympathetically with the suffering of others. At the same time, it turns the soul inwards, bringing the fate of the self into focus. One aim of this dissertation is to unify these aspects through an analysis of the sublime. In Chapter Five, which focuses on Byron and Smith, I illustrate the connection between mortal consciousnesses, social or political consciousness, and aesthetic awareness.
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