Contributor: Alice Rhodes
Location: Wellcome Collection, London, UK
Description: This song sheet, titled “Mary’s Ghost or the Favorite Anatomy Song” and advertised as “being No 1 of The Ballad Singer, a Collection of Comical Comic songs,” started life as a poem, first published in Thomas Hood’s 1826 collection, Whims and Oddities. In Hood’s darkly comic ballad, and its musical setting by J. Blewitt, the eponymous ghost appears to her widowed fiancé to deliver the unfortunate news that she has been grave-robbed and that her material body is now scattered across the medical schools and laboratories of London. Together, Mary’s posthumous predicament, and the material afterlife of the poem itself, raise questions about the materiality or immateriality of body and text and about the relationship between dissection and collection which are as pertinent today as they were for late Romantic writers like Hood.
The ballad, one of three Hood poems to satirise the growing (and indeed legitimate) fear of body-snatching in the 1820s, provides a bluntly material anatomisation of the body, in which body-parts are not identified and catalogued, but dismembered and dislocated. Mary’s ghost complains:
The arm that used to take your arm
Is took to Dr. Vyse;
And both my legs are gone to walk
The hospital at Guy’s.
I vowed that you should have my hand,
But fate gives us denial;
You’ll find it there, at Doctor Bell’s,
In spirits and a phial. (ll.21-28)
Poetry and science often combined in Romantic era writing in poetic catalogues or inventories of scientific and medical collections, such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s “An Inventory Of The Furniture In Dr. Priestley’s Study” or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Letter to Maria Gisborne.” In Hood’s satire, however, scientific knowledge-making is based not on the collection and assembly of diverse objects, but on the on the disassembly of the bodily whole, as arms, legs, hands, and so on are shipped off to different surgeons, each with different specialisations. Neurologist, Charles Bell, whose treatise on, The Hand would be published in 1833, receives Mary’s hand for example, while plastic surgeon Joseph Constantine Carpue, who performed England’s first rhinoplasty acquires her head, and Sir Astley Cooper, whose fame as a surgeon was cemented in his work on the vascular system becomes the new owner of her heart.
Sara Lodge notes that since, in Hood’s poetry, the body is “forever subject to reconstruction; it perpetually threatens to become confused with legitimate objects of consumption” (Lodge, 101) In this ballad in particular, Hood literalises the idea of the body as an object (or rather a number of objects) as it is physically deconstructed, and recontextualised as part of each surgeon’s collection of specimens. Hood, who was notorious for his wordplay, linguistically blurs the lines between the organic body and inanimate objects, as he puns on the word “trunk”, suggesting both the upper part of the body, and a piece of luggage carried by the haulage company, Pickford’s. He writes:
I can’t tell where my head is gone
But Doctor Carpue can:
As for my trunk, it’s all pack’d up
To go by Pickford’s van. (ll.33-36)
However, the fact that the theft of Mary’s corpse has not just split one body part from another, but has divided spirit and body, suggests that the dynamic between the material and the immaterial is not quite as straight forward as a transformation of self into object. Rather, her dismemberment allows the material and immaterial forms of her body (her cadaver and her ghost) to coexist independent of one another. Furthermore, by the end of the poem it is the immaterial ghost which endures while the physical body no longer exists. She implores William:
Don’t go to weep upon my grave
And think that there I be;
They haven’t left an atom there,
Of my anatomie. (ll.45-48)
It is not just bodies, but texts, which can complicate the distinction between material and immaterial objects and the afterlife of the poem itself contains as many instances of dissection and collection as that of Mary. Originally part of Hood’s collection Whims and Oddities, “Mary’s Ghost” was excised by J. Blewitt for the first instalment of his collection The Ballad Singer. The material text pictured above, one of the few surviving copies of the song sheet, has been detached and recontextualised even further, as it is now held by the Wellcome Collection in one of four boxes of medical songs, together with numerous other pieces of sheet music, but no further items in The Ballad Singer series.
This song sheet is classed as ephemera by Wellcome Collection, bringing to mind scraps of paper (playbills, news cuttings, tickets) which are the material fragments of lost immaterial experiences (performances, events, excursions). But a song sheet works the other way – it is a physical object from which, with the aid of a piano, the immaterial experience of music can be reconstructed. Ghosts can rise from the archive.
And now “Mary’s Ghost” has been grave-robbed again, and to a certain extent, dematerialised, for this virtual collection. Like Victor Frankenstein “collecting and arranging [his] materials” (36) to better understand life, or like the fictionalised Doctor Bell examining Mary’s hand in a phial, the song sheet has been relocated and recontextualised for the purposes of studying, teaching, and creating new understandings of the body or bodies of work we call Romanticism.
Date: after 1826
Creator: Thomas Hood and J. Blewitt
Subject: Thomas Hood
Media rights: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Object type: song sheet
Format: paper and ink
Publisher: Wellcome Collection
Catalogue number: [contained within] Oversize ephemera: Medical songs 2 EPH+58
Digital collection record: https://search.wellcomelibrary.org/iii/encore/record/C__Rb1726109?lang=eng
Blewitt, J. Mary’s Ghost, or the Favorite Anatomy Song. London: S. Chappell, [n.d.].
Hood, Thomas. “Mary’s Ghost: A Pathetic Ballad.” Whims and Oddities : in prose and verse. London: L. Relfe, 1826. Pp.15-17.
Lodge, Sara. Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-century Poetry: work, play, and politics. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus. Ed. Marilyn Butler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.