Before we begin, let's get one thing clear: despite the title, "The Living Dead" is not about zombies. (Given current marketing trends in pop fiction, you never know what innocent readers might think.) However, the deliberately Gothic title invokes the sensational associations commonplace in Victorian anti-Catholic texts, of which this is an example. It appeared in The Bulwark; or, Reformation Journal on April 1, 1865--the same issue that reported that the indefatigable anti-Catholic campaigner Charles Newdigate Newdegate (a.k.a. the Victorian politician most likely to have his name misspelled) was attempting to advance a bill on his pet project, an "inquiry into the state and working of conventual institutions" (253).1 Although this may have been a coincidence, the poem's very traditional subject matter--the agonies of a young nun imprisoned in her convent--play directly into contemporary anxieties about women purportedly trapped in convents, isolated from their families, perhaps buried alive...
Like most of the poems that appeared in The Bulwark, "The Living Dead" eschews formal experimentation: it's in iambic pentameter ABAB quatrains. rarely varying its meter with anything except the occasional opening trochaic substitution. Nevertheless, the opening quatrain jars the ear with slant rhymes (cry/ear/humanity/there), appropriate to the poem's discordant tone. This quatrain opens with a rather Wordsworthian "HUSH!" (1), enjoining us to listen to "that moaning, stifled cry/That comes through the dark grating, on the ear" (1-2). This momentarily disembodied, apparently inarticulate "cry" issues from some eerie alternate space; at this moment in the poem, it has no gender or meaning other than suffering. "Is it the wail of crushed humanity?" (3) asks the speaker, inviting our assent. The precise nature of this suffering, however, only emerges once we "[l]ook through those gloomy bars" (4), obviously suggesting a prison, and connect the voice to a body. Even then, that body remains ungendered for a moment:
Why is that sunken cheek so drenched in tears?
And why those faded eyes with weeping red?
And the shrunk form so bowed?—but not with years,—
The stern result of piteous grief and dread. (5-8)
This body appears to be slipping into erasure, what with its "sunken cheek," "faded eyes," and "shrunk form." This rapidly fading body is appropriate to the wordless cry: in both cases, "humanity" slowly degrades under the weight of some immense agony. Moreover, withholding the body's gender invokes one of anti-Catholic literature's favorite tropes--namely, celibacy's demolition of "proper" gendered and erotic identities. But we should remember that in its original context, a journal addressed to a profoundly anti-Catholic readership, this poem's opening "mysteries" are no mystery at all. Instead, the speaker--or our tour guide, take your pick--embodies anti-Catholic wisdom at work. S/he calls an apparently naive companion to the site, utters a series of rhetorical (and sentimentalized) questions, and then proceeds to not only interpret the body, but offer up an exemplary narrative about the dangerous temptations of Catholic rhetoric. The imagined audience, in other words, is being turned into an informed witness.
The end of the second quatrain puts our poor body's predicament into its gendered and class context. This body is not merely weakened, but apparently writhing in "wild abandonment" (9), a sight that conjoins profound agony with something that looks suspiciously sexual. And finally, two lines later, the speaker identifies the body as female: "Can it be she who, not long years before,/Flitted along, the gayest of the gay?" (11-12) This appalling "abandonment" parodies the young woman's earlier worldliness, while it also contrasts her original, butterfly-like social mobility to her current prison trap. The giddy young woman has simply run from one extreme to the other. Once thoughtless in her "summer bower" (13), the nun was reduced to her current inarticulate state by a "specious tongue that told/Of holy raptures in convent drear" (17-18). This speaker implicitly juxtaposes this "tongue" with his or her own; it's not clear, in fact, to whom the adjective "drear" belongs (the specious tongue? Our speaker?). In any event, here's another anti-Catholic trope: the dangers of Catholic language, which embraces heightened figures of speech--not to mention lying. What the specious tongue promises, one notes, is another form of pleasure, designed to substitute a sanctified form of gaiety for the worldly version. Even though there is no sex here--that is, in fact, part of the problem--our nun has effectively been seduced.
In this up-ended seduction narrative, the dangerously sociable young woman finds herself enchanted into a life in which there is no love at all. Trapped in a "living grave" (23), she is denied maternal "sympathy" (26) (which is linked to close physical contact), paternal "praises" (27), and fraternal "pride" (28). The home was the happy scene of both verbal and physical intimacy; tellingly, the father's "tongue" (27) stands apart from the seductive "specious tongue." Now, she is reduced to being overheard by passers-by, who do nothing to assuage her pain. Despite the appropriately Gothic "horrid walls" (29) of her convent prison, though, her true tortures are self-inflicted. The "within" to which the speaker juxtaposes the "bright world" outside (30) is not just the convent, but the mind itself. For the nun, it turns out, does not reject the narratives that animate her new life, despite her miseries: she interprets her longings for home as "sin" (32). Thus, her trap is as much theological as it is physical. Unlike the narrator and the audience, the nun continues to choose the "specious tongue" over the father's (possibly, in an implied and relatively common anti-Catholic pun, of the Catholic Father's over the father's). Concluding on one more anti-Catholic trope, the speaker leaves the nun embroiled in her spiritual horrors, discovering only "[l]oathing for calm delight--despair for peace!" (36)
1 The best account of Newdegate is Walter Arnstein, Protestant versus Catholic in Mid-Victorian England: Mr. Newdegate and the Nuns (Columbia, MO: U of Missouri P, 1982).