Consumption became one of the most deadly diseases in the 19th century. Grossly misunderstood, it was the root cause and nature in which the illness manifested among dense populations. It traveled with ease from family member to family member, coining the phrase “consumptive” family. Authors and poets used this guaranteed death sentence as inspiration and motivation to spawn some of the great literary works that have lasted the test of time. Poems, books, and operas all found roots in the use of consumption with metaphors, symbols, and images; defining a horrific and dramatic death, reversing it into the personification of beauty and grace. This paper examines consumption as it ...view middle of the document...
Many 19th century poets and authors used consumption as a focal point in their writings; possibly because of its rampant exposure in populous areas, or its unyielding grip to its victims, or because of the certain eventuality it brings. This led poets and authors to pen darkened, macabre style compositions and vindication of sins by leading characters, all becoming intimately linked with the soulful diametrical passion of death. Many wrote masterful works that inevitably became a 19th Century requiem.
Poets and their Muse
Edgar Allan Poe was certainly no stranger to consumption. Of the women in his life, most, if not all, fell ill from the disease. Beginning with his mother, Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins, an English actress who had recently arrived in America, succumbed to the ravages of consumption on December 10th 1811, the young mother of Henry, three; Edgar, two; and Rosalie, one; died at age twenty-four (Benton, 1998). His newly acquired step-mother, Frances Allan, expressed an undiscerning love towards him; while his step-father carried outward resentment for the young Poe. He continued to live with the Allan’s from 1811 until the death of Frances Allan in 1833. Poe expressed anxiety in regarding Mrs. Allan’s feelings toward him: “My dearest love to Ma – it is only when absent that we can tell the value of such a friend – I hope she will not let my wayward disposition wear away the love she used to have for me” (Ostrem, 11).
In 1831, Poe had headed for Baltimore where he sought refuge in the only home that was available to him – that of his aunt, Mrs. Maria Clemm. She was a widow with a thirteen-year-old son, Henry, and a nine year old daughter, Virginia (Benton, 1998). Maria perhaps was altogether the most important women in Poe’s life. She looked after and cared for him with devotion and loyalty, from the time he was 21 until the end of his life at age 40. It was through Aunt Maria that Poe met his wife who was his aunt’s only daughter. Yet again, we are reminded of the tragedies in Poe’s life when she dies in 1847 at the tender age of 25. Grief-stricken, Poe never completely recovers from his loss (Benton, 1998). Out of this comes one of Poe’s most beautiful poems, Annabel Lee. He writes: “A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling his beautiful Annabel Lee / So that her high born kinsmen cam, / And bore her away.” These events, along with an abundant array of others, deliver profound insights to his writings.
A gifted and talented poet, John Keats was the patriarch of consumption amongst poets during the romantic period of the 19th century. The painfully slow killer, also known as “phthisis” was widely accepted as a “stylish disease” which helped shape many works during the Romantic Movement. “In Ode on Melancholy, which is probably Keats’ best known statement of his recurrent theme of the mingled contraries of life, he implies that the tragic human destiny that beauty, joy, and life itself owe not only their quality but their value to...