If you were to sit down right now and write a story or screenplay set in Heaven, what sort of place would it be? A very beautiful, idealized version of Earth, perhaps? Maybe with a few fluffy clouds, angels, and harps tossed in? Just like in the Bible, right?
It may surprise you to realize that the vision of Paradise you are concocting at this moment and that you have seen repeated in countless movies and television shows is less directly drawn from Biblical sources than it is derived from the writings of an 18th century religious writer named Emanuel Swedenborg.
The Bible is rather sparse on details about the afterlife for believers. The existence it does describe seems to differ from earthly human existence to an almost uncomfortable degree since paradise seems to consist entirely of a non-ceasing servitude of eternal worship. Swedenborg, in his 1758 book Heaven and Hell by contrast, described a paradise that was much easier for his readers to visualize.
Swedenborg’s Heaven was a perfected version of bourgeois life on Earth. People in Heaven live in heavenly neighborhoods and have heavenly jobs. Little children who die go straight to Heaven and are raised by angel mothers. Angels, in Swedenborg’s vision, are not the mysterious and fearsome Divine warrior-messenger beings of the Bible, but become the super-benevolent people with wings and halos that we usually see in popular media today.
Although Swedenborgism, or The New Church, has almost entirely died out as a denomination today, its ideas still powerfully shape how both believers and agnostics visualize the afterlife. Many Victorian intellectuals were fascinated by the writings of Swedenborg. Several were members of the New Church. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Helen Keller, William Blake, Johnny Appleseed, Ralph Waldo Emmerson, and Henry James were all among the important literary and social figures who work was influenced by Swedenborgism.
As you might have guess, I’m bring this movement up because Anna Cora Mowatt was a devoted member of The New Church from a young age. Swedenborgism had a profound impact on her thinking in a number of areas. Its influence manifests in her work and career in a number of ways. In this blog, I’m going to show you how Swedenborg’s beliefs about the afterworld show up in her poems about death and dying… Oh, joy!
The Victorians can seem excessively morbid by today’s standards. They lived in closer contact with death than most contemporary suburban Americans. Elderly relatives still died in their homes rather than in hospitals. Child mortality rates were high. Victorians believed that the appropriate display of sentiment made an individual seem more trustworthy. Knowing when, where, how, and how much grief to publically present for how long was an important social display to master for people who wished to be respectable in all economic brackets. Mourning etiquette became even more byzantine in its detail after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 when Queen Victoria went into mourning and threatened to never again emerge.
In contrast, because the afterlife described by Swedenborg was profoundly pleasant and superior to earthly existence, New Church members believed excessive public mourning displayed a lack of faith in the deceased’s salvation. Funerals, in their opinion, should be more along the lines of modern “life celebrations” with tears reserved only for those left behind as these lines from Mowatt’s “To Isabel M” reflect:
And if perchance some tears will flow,
Believe me, they must be
For aching hearts thou leavest void,
Not happy one! for thee!
Nor would I by a wish recall
The angel from its sphere,
Where endless joy and changeless love
Atone for sufferings here! 1
A stark “before and after” picture of Mowatt’s conception of the afterlife can be seen when one compares two poems she wrote about her reactions to her mother’s death. Her mother died just a few years after Anna Cora’s elopement with James Mowatt. Mowatt was still only around eighteen years old at the time of her mother’s death. The first poem she wrote, published in 1841 and titled “On Seeing My Mother’s Miniature,” concentrates more on the intensity of her feelings of pain and loss. It begins, “My Mother’s face! My lost! My loved!” At one point, the painting transforms into a fleeting vision of the poet’s mother:
The pale lips move-the saint-like eye looks down—
And hark! whence comes that unforgotten tone,
That prayerful blessing! see—my brain is wild!
The buried mother smiles upon her child!
She points to where our souls may be rejoined—
She fades–oh! mother leave me not behind!2
Contrast this desolation with the mood of “On a Lock of My Mother’s Hair” written only a few years later in 1844 after Mowatt’s conversion to Swedenborgism. Not only has time passed to soften the loss of her mother, but the poet’s conception of the afterlife and her connection to it has changed. Instead of her mother’s lingering spirit existing only as a wild vision, it is a comforting presence that her faith assures her is a constant guide in this life and the next:
In that happy home above,
Where all perfect joy hath birth,
Thou dispensest good and love,
Mother, as thou didst on earth.
And though distant seems that sphere,
Still I feel thee ever near.
Though my longing eye now views
Thy angelic mien no more,
Still thy spirit can infuse
Good in mine, unknown before.
Still the voice, from childhood dear,
Steals upon my raptured ear-
Chiding every wayward deed,
Fondly praising every just,
Whispering soft, when strength I need,
“Loved one! place in God thy trust ”
Oh, ’tis more than joy to feel
Thou art watching o’er my weal! 3
Mowatt’s religious beliefs could put her significantly out of step with her colleagues and audience, though. The grand opening of the newly re-built Royal Olympic Theatre unfortunately coincided with the death of Queen Victoria’s aunt, Queen Adelaide. (Unfortunate coincidences were just beginning to pile up for Walter Watts, manager of the Olympic, at this point.) Despite the splendor of his opening night being somewhat dampened by London being still draped in official mourning, Watts had commissioned a comic monologue from popular comedian Alfred O. Smith especially for Mowatt to deliver. The problem was that in accordance with her Swedenborgian beliefs, the actress flatly refused to appear on stage wearing black. Victorian mourning traditions were very strict and specific about dress. Watts was very adamant that his star would shine on his opening night. Mowatt was equally firm that she would not compromise her beliefs.
An unidentified third party finally came up with a solution and suggested that Mowatt perform the piece wearing all white with no adornment as a substitute for traditional mourning garb.4 The actress agreed and the monologue ended up going off very well with newspaper accounts reporting that Mowatt was interrupted with laughter and applause every other line. However E.L. Davenport is supposed to have told a fellow actor that it was a very good thing that Mowatt was rather near-sighted and couldn’t see the shocked expressions on some of the faces just beyond the footlights when she entered in her new-fangled, Swedenborgian “celebration of life” version of Victorian mourning garb.
Although Emanuel Swedenborg and much of his beliefs have vanished into history, time has caught up with the attitude towards mourning his teaching pointed Mowatt towards. She seems at her most modern when she advises her mourners, “O, wear for me no sable hue…”
Unlike her contemporaries who were so death-obsessed that they eagerly perused ads like that of G.W. Herbert’s establishment that identified itself as a “Family Mourning Warehouse” and that promised it was supplied with “every NOVELTY of the SEASON, immediately as they are approved at the West End…”5
Mowatt urged her well-wishers not to engage in undue ceremony to commemorate her passing. The poem counsels:
Nor mark the spot with urn or stone,
Where worthless dust, unconscious lies;
Within your loving hearts alone,
The monument I ask, should rise!
And shed for me no bitter tear,
Nor breathe my name in mournful tone;
Your smiles ‘twas mine to waken here,
And I would think them still my own!
Nor link my image with regret —
A pleasant memory I would be;
To consecrate and brighten yet
The scenes that once were dear to me! 6
Mowatt’s devotion to Swedenborgism remained strong throughout the rest of her life. She credited her faith with helping her cope with the many tragic losses and unexpected reversals of fortune she experienced as well as her struggles with chronic illness and bouts of depression; or as she expressed it, battles with the “blue devils.” In future blogs, I will discuss the impact her religious beliefs had on her thoughts on issues as diverse as marriage, friendship, and women’s rights.
The influence of New Church philosophy can be heard throughout all of Mowatt’s writings when one knows what to look for. Usually the voice is subtle as a whisper. Occasionally, though, it’s a proselytizing pamphleteer. These poems that look towards a life in the hereafter are only one of the many examples of Swedenborg’s heaven glittering through the pages of Mowatt’s art.
1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. “To Isabel M…” The Columbian Magazine, Vol. III, 1845. Page 15
2. Mowatt, Anna Cora. “On Seeing My Mother’s Miniature.” The Ladies Companion, Vol. 15 November 1841, page 41
3. Mowatt, Anna Cora. “On a Lock of My Mother’s Hair.” Graham’s Monthly Magazine, 1844, Volume XXIV, page 80.
4. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1854. Pages 321-322.
5. Advertisement. The Reading Mercury. Saturday, May 8, 1847 col.2, page 3
6. Mowatt, Anna Cora. “Oh! Wear for Me No Sable Hue.” The Columbian Magazine, Vol. IV, 1845. Page 10.