Dissertation Corner with Harriet Mercer: Mourning and Death in the Romantic Elegy, 1750-1830

In this week’s Dissertation Corner we speak to Harriet Mercer about her project on Mourning and Death in the Romantic Elegy, 1750-1830.

Tell us about your dissertation, what is it about?

My dissertation is on the processes of mourning and depictions of death in the elegy from 1750 – 1830, specifically focusing on six different poems. In this time frame there are two distinct styles of elegies that I discuss and weigh in different factors that affect the success of the elegy. I argue that the elegy has to show a progressive form of grief rather than just a moody aesthetic.

How did you choose the texts for your dissertation?

I went through a long process of picking my texts as my project has gone through so many changes and alterations. I knew I wanted to talk about Romantic poets as they have been my favourites for so long and I really enjoyed studying them last year in the module Romantic Period Writing. I also enjoyed the module Eighteenth Century Writing which I studied in my first semester of second year, which is where I encountered Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ for the first time and I knew it would work so well by comparison to the Romantic writing. It was just a long process of finding poems that would work in my discussion and I didn’t have a definitive list until late October. The poems I discuss are Gray’s ‘Elegy’, Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’, William Wordsworth’s ‘Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm as painted by Sir George Beaumont’ (catchy name I’m sure you’ll agree), Lord Byron’s ‘Thou Art Dead as Young and Fair’, Percy Byshee Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ and Charles Lamb ‘On an Infant Dying as Soon as Born’.

Has your project changed much since the proposal stage?

Definitely! My project is completely unrecognisable to my proposal. I initially proposed a discussion of the forms of masculinity and eroticism in Byronic Heroes in Nineteenth-Century writing. This topic interested me as I’d just finished an assignment on performative hegemonic masculinity in war writing which I really loved and wanted to explore tropes of idealised masculinity in another era. The idea of ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ characters really interested me as these brooding characters are massively romanticised, especially by contemporary audiences.

I decided to change my topic as I just really love discussing poetry and it meant that I could look at the poets which have such interesting lives as well as complicated and refined poetry. I find understanding the context and culture of the period really aids my discussion as I can take an interdisciplinary approach which has worked for me in the past. I knew to look at the change in poetry from the Enlightenment to the Victorian Era, but I wasn’t sure how to make this specific. Meeting with my tutor really helped me refine this to the elegy and refine it even further to the specific poems I’m looking at.

Why are you interested in this topic?

I find it fascinating how death is such a huge part of narratives and yet writers struggle to evoke this on the page. I think it’s useful to look at how mourning, memorialising and dealing with loss frequently stands in for the deceased themselves and this is pivotal to the understanding of mourning in this period. There is a definite societal fascination in the depiction of death from 1750 – 1830 and this is also interesting going into mourning customs of the Victorians. A cultural figure which is a good case study in this mode of memory and memorialising is Thomas Chatterton who features in my discussion of ‘immortalising’. Even though the subject matter in these texts can be anywhere between sombre and harrowing, what I find interesting is how the actual depiction of mourning is relatively positive and progressive.

What have you enjoyed most about the project?

It sounds like a cliché but just exploring my specialised area and being able to research all around has been the best part about the project. I think that it’s the best way to figure out what you enjoy writing about and what you find interesting. Focusing on one project for an extended period also really allows you to develop your thinking and your standard of writing. It’s going to be bittersweet to say goodbye to my dissertation.

What has it been like working closely with an academic supervisor?

It’s been so great working with Adam as my supervisor, he’s really supported my thinking and been patient enough to deal with me changing my mind in the early stages. Having someone who is very knowledgeable, helpful and genuinely interested in what you’re writing about also really helps to encourage you develop your thinking.