Death and the Future Life in Victorian Literature and Theology

Beverly, Elizabeth

BOOKS When hell shifted, so did hope DEATH AND THE FUTURE LIFE IN VICTORIAN LITERATURE AND THEOLOGY Michael Wheeler Cambridge University Press, $54.50, 456 pp. Elizabeth Beverly Between...

...As voices blend and merge at the moment of Gerontius's death, we understand that he has not been abandoned...
...Oddly, that leaves the matter of closure up to the reader...
...There is no singleminded or -willed Christian Victorian culture, and the people who lived all those years ago in England knew every bit as much and as little about death and the beyond as we do...
...For me, there is no closure, only a wonderful disturbance...
...The gradual evacuation of hell was accompanied by a revamping of heaven as a place in which reunion with loved ones could be the reward and the ongoing improvement of the individual could be the promise...
...22: 17 January 1992 Commonweal...
...Wheeler's presentation of Hopkins's long poem radically opens the work wider than literary convention has yet allowed...
...As Wheeler demonstrates, for these two Protestant writers, hope came to depend upon individual intention and good-will and action in an unfair and, at times, stifling world, set in chronological time...
...It is not only the by-now senseless cruelty of too-much dying that makes the experience of the Tait family lie beyond me...
...Tennyson's answer, in part dictated by his heart, resides in the act of writing the poem itself...
...In his crowded, quirky, brilliant study of Victorian eschatology, Michael Wheeler, professor of English at Lancaster University, points to the Taits as he races past them...
...Fittingly but awkwardly, the book has no conclusion...
...By the early twentieth century, a new world of belief had emerged, one that looks similar to the diverse, relativized religious landscape that we see stretching around us today...
...Adept and intuitive, widely read and scrupulous, when he finally allows himself to spend time with Victorian writers, as he does with Tennyson, Dickens, Newman, and Hopkins in the second section, Wheeler moves with delight, ease, and a type of whizzing accuracy through the meanings lurking in four well-wrought texts: In Memoriam, Our Mutual Friend, The Dream of Gerontius, and "The Wreck of the Deutschland...
...In Our 20: 17 January 1992 Commonweal Mutual Friend, Dickens, also a Protestant, paints a hellish social landscape, but relies on the integrity of the individual to transcend circumstance and attain the promise of heaven...
...Wheeler extends his reading of Newman into an impressive analysis of Elgar's adaptation of the poem as an oratorio...
...Sadly, for readers like me, he does not linger, because what he is truly documenting is not the predicament of the individual believer, nor even the nature of belief reflected in Victorian writing, although each of these issues is addressed and at times amplified...
...Why are the words of the Mass so empowering...
...Hell may be many things to Dickens, often the affliction of lust without love, but one can choose heaven...
...What Wheeler restores is the knowledge that, as he states it, the poem "articulates most fully a theology of death...rooted in Christ's own passion and death...
...That a Roman Catholic priest who believed in the Immaculate Conception could see within the figure and form of a drowning nun the type of all martyrs who, at the moment of death, are born into Christ as Christ was born into the world, attests to a vivid awareness of theological possiblilities...
...The answer lies in his second striking achievement: Wheeler resists the impulse to allow his deft reading to yield readily to glib interpretation...
...Wheeler's final achievement is simple...
...It is, as well, the cultural conviction shared by these fine Anglicans that death alone could provide the solace of reunion, or, as Tait wrote later about his eight-year-old Mary, for her death seemed "a great and blessed reality, the way by which she was to attain her real life...
...For those of us who admire this ability, Wheeler's performance is at once instructive and thrilling to watch...
...Hope on the move...
...Five daughters...
...Presumably, the professor's intended audience resides within the academy...
...That such a man could understand the wild and mysterious physical power of birthing and dying is a gift of empathy we expect of great poets...
...But reading such a book should not have to be a task, requiring great funds of knowledge and an excellent memory...
...The first section, consisting of chapters on death, judgment, heaven, and hell abounds in paragraphs crammed with references and quotations...
...For instance, we can easily see that the industrial revolution made it possible for increasing numbers of Christians to suspect that hell was moving to earth, that perhaps one did not need to experience the loss of God's mercy in the afterlife if such loss could be so apparent and absolute in the present one...
...There are simply not enough sentences to bear the burden of Wheeler's mighty learning...
...he brings to life the thoughts and worlds of many, many people who otherwise might remain behind us in chronological time but beyond our present comprehension...
...Elizabeth Beverly Between March 6 and April 10, 1856, in Carlisle, England, five little girls from one to ten years old, all daughters of Catherine and Archibald Tait, died of scarlet fever...
...If the desired effect is polyphony, Wheeler fails to attain it...
...Simply collapse time, and all believers everywhere are saying the same words together...
...But my criticisms are not nearly so important as Wheeler's achievements...
...Wheeler then proceeds to acquaint us with that theology as well as with the literary precedents that inspired Hopkins...
...Newman understood that for him the greatest hope lay not in the ascendant power of the individual to overcome hardship, but in an ancient and simple premise of Catholic ritual: one never need be alone, not even at the moment of death...
...Wheeler does not try to neaten up the religious landscape so that we can pick our way more easily across it, but, at the same time, he does conscientiously point out striking and changing landmarks as they emerge...
...The two Victorian Catholics of Wheeler's choosing are different, they know they are, and Wheeler's extraordinary sensitivity to the numinous quality of language permits his chapters on Newman's The Dream of Gerontius and Hopkins's "The Wreck of the Deutschland" to accomplish a nearly impossible task: to record a moment when the social, the literary, and the liturgical or theological merge to create a work of art that may lie beyond the full comprehension of those who do not share an intuitive sense of its liturgical roots...
...The univocality of the pedant-scholar blurs distinctions in the attempt to set individual ideas apart...
...Length is a problem, too...
...No amount of imagination, no amount of empathy can allow me, 145 years later, to feel the full weight of those words...
...My criticisms are not quibbles...
...This would provide me with sufficient reason to read the book, but why should I recommend it to anyone else...
...In this way, death opens to an eternal present...
...As Wheeler reminds us, even now we are encouraged to marvel at Hopkins's technical ingenuity, but there is a haunting silence about the matter of deep meaning...
...the book would have benefitted greatly from some rigorous editing...
...Such a work is bound to be misunderstood over time, to appear odd or minor, to recede from literary prominence, as both of these poems have done...
...it really is about Victorian Literature and Theology...
...Freud has had his way and any celibate priest who chooses to write about roiling seas and tall nuns and tempestuous foam must be up to something repressed and phallic...
...Behavior provides salvation, even here, even now...
...What Wheeler seeks to discuss is nothing less than hope itself...
...And there is nothing neat about either of these vast subjects...
...her words still matter...
...The book really is about Death and the Future Life...
...Hope lurching into new realms...
...These are several and remarkable...
...In this way, the simple hope of Mary Tait does live on...
...Wheeler's book is not without its faults...
...Five deaths...
...The poem also asks how the survivor can transform the ritual of grieving even as the meaning of the final judgment changes...
...For during the Victorian period in England, the meaning of hope shifted significantly as the old Christian certaintiesódeath, judgment, heaven, and hellóbecame secularized, socialized, in some cases privatized...
...Five weeks...
...By placing these four voices side by side, Wheeler allows us to experience shifts in Commonweal 17 January 1992: 21 cultural meaning, to sense the moment when the theology of the future life was eclipsed by the secular rhetoric of personal intention and will, as well as that of social responsibility...
...Tennyson's long poem In Memoriam, in which the Anglican poet struggles with the untimely death of young Arthur Hallam, deals in part with the meaning of individual, not "typical" death...
...First, Wheeler is a marvelous close-reader...
...When hell shifted, so did hope, and it is Wheeler's third significant achievement to allow us to hear in depth the voices of four great Victorian writers as they struggle with the meaning and promise of hope...
...I suspect that the faults revealed by Professor Wheeler are common to many scholars who are simply good writers, not exceptionally fine ones...
...In this chapter of stunning scholarship, Wheeler insists, simply and fully, that we, as educated readers, not lose our ability to understand this poem, that we not let it die...

Vol. 119 • January 1992 • No. 1


 
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