"Melancholy's Wake: Loss and Literary Imagination in Eighteenth-Century Britain"
Williams, Jonathan C.
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If the centuries preceding and following it are known for their revolutionary character (the seventeenth century for its regicide and the Romantic period for the French Revolution), then the eighteenth century in Britain has seemed in many accounts to be an age of progress rather than upheaval. As a period of refined sensibility and rapid economic growth, the British eighteenth century appears to be marked by an insistence on social stability and thus to have little room for melancholy, the sadness that does not end. In “Melancholy’s Wake,” however, I contend that the politically revolutionary spirit that seems otherwise missing in the eighteenth century is located instead in the melancholic language of loss deployed by the graveyard poems and the sentimental novels, among other genres. Across a range of genres, loss works as a synecdoche for cultural crises figured by the rise of commercialism and sociability. While modernity offers the promise of a prosperous future for the upwardly mobile, some literary writers see modernity instead as the erasure of opportunity for the lower-rank. In dwelling with the spirit of loss, literary writers see a trace of the revolutionary spirit in the quiet expression of melancholy, as such expressions cannot be assimilated within the project of modernity. Such quiet expressions also reveal, however, that some aspects of revolutionary thought are fundamentally inoperative. Melancholy sees utopic thought as a dream not accessible to the present, but the articulation of such a dream offers an alternative to modernity when no other alternative presents itself.