Death in the Schoolroom: Associationist Education and Children’s Poetry Books

  • David McAllister


This chapter re-situates theories of mind at the heart of the nineteenth century’s distinctive literary and cultural responses to death and the dead by examining attempts to bring about social reform through reshaping how children learned about death and the dead. It shows how educational writers drew upon theories of association psychology to develop a belief that, by policing representations of the dead in the nation’s schoolrooms and nurseries, it would be possible to banish demoralising fears and superstitions about death to the pre-nineteenth-century past, and thus to guarantee continuing social progress throughout the nineteenth century. Questions of what and how the young learn about death and the dead were therefore deemed to be of crucial importance in determining their later attitudes to mortality as adults. This chapter begins by discussing how nineteenth-century writers and readers rejected inherited modes of representing death that emphasised bodily dissolution, gloom, and terror, such as those found in Graveyard poetry. It then considers why educators believed that they might reshape individual and cultural attitudes to mortality through the careful superintendence of what children saw, heard, and read about the dead, by examining pedagogical textbooks, domestic advice manuals, and accounts of childhood by Elizabeth Hamilton and Edmund Gosse, among others. It concludes by examining the role played by Wordsworth’s poem ‘We Are Seven’ in this reformatory process, tracking its journey from the poetic margins of Lyrical Ballads to its position as a schoolroom and nursery staple, committed to memory by generations of young Victorians.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • David McAllister
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of English and HumanitiesBirkbeck College - University of LondonLondonUK

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