Copley Report: Colleen English

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Colleen English was one of a number of BARS members who were awarded Stephen Copley Research Awards earlier this year.  Below, she gives an account of the research that the award assisted her with completing.

The Stephen Copley Research Award partially funded my research trip to London in mid-June 2016 to consult manuscript and print materials in the British Library and the Wellcome Library. The Award enabled me to consult material crucial both to my monograph project, “Writing the Dead: Epitaphs, Elegies and Communities of Sentiment in Romantic Ireland” and to an article I am preparing for publication on John Keats’s poetry and the scientific process of embalming corpses.

My monograph project, based on my PhD thesis, examines how the preoccupation with grief and loss in Irish poetry of the Romantic and early Victorian periods is informed by shifting historical contexts as well as by intellectual history, especially British empiricist philosophy. In moving away from the strict taxonomies of elegy toward a modal understanding of the poetics of mourning, this project focuses on the ways in which Irish poets, namely Mary Tighe, Thomas Moore, and James Clarence Mangan understood grief as a type of sympathy that enabled cross-cultural exchange between Ireland and England.

Since the project is focused on the cultural and political importance of mourning, the debates in the House of Lords in the 1820s surrounding the burial of dissenters and Roman Catholics in Protestant churchyards in Ireland is especially relevant. The Irish Burial Act is discussed in some detail in the correspondences of Lord Wellesley, who was the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland 1821-1827 and 1833-1834, and whose letters (many of which are unpublished) are held in the British Library’s collection. The opportunity to consult these materials, which include a copy of the amended Burial Act with Lord Wellesley’s remarks in the margins, greatly enhanced my understanding of the contested space of the churchyard in Ireland during this period.

I also consulted E.R. Moran’s papers concerning Thomas Moore. Included in the material was a book of newspaper cuttings about Moore’s poetry with Moran’s annotations in the margins. The book is organized by poem, so that the entry for Moore’s “Oh! Breathe Not His Name” also includes other poems written either in response to the poem or its subject, Robert Emmet’s final speech, making it possible to clearly see the reception of Moore’s poetry both in Ireland and England.

One of the highlights of my visit to the British Library was the opportunity to view one of the fifty privately printed copies of Mary Tighe’s epic poem Psyche (1805). The book also contains manuscript copies (written in an unknown hand) of two of Tighe’s poems in addition to a letter from Tighe to Mrs. Fox.

In the Wellcome Library I consulted books and manuscripts relating to the embalming process as it was practiced in the early nineteenth century, as well as texts pertaining to John Keats’s medical training. The anatomists John and William Hunter and their nephew, Matthew Baillie are important figures in my study as they made great advancements in the practice of embalming in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The opportunity to consult their letters gave me a fuller sense of their accomplishments and collaborations. The lecture notes of an anonymous student of John Hunter’s served to expand my understanding of the way that Hunter conceived of the communication between different nerves and organs in the human body as a kind of physiological sympathy.

Thanks to the generous support of BARS I was able to benefit from the rich array of manuscripts in the British Library and Wellcome Library collections, deepening my understanding of the affective properties of these texts and of the historical context in which they were produced, resulting in significant revisions to my monograph project and great advances made towards the completion of my essay on Keats. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to BARS for awarding me the Stephen Copley award, without which this research would not have been possible.

Dr. Colleen English, University College Dublin