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7 December 2023

Lexicon of loss

The history of the elegy reveals how the poetry of grief has the power to trouble, console and unite.

By Rowan Williams

“The worst is not, So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.” Edgar’s lines in King Lear are, in context, a warning against supposing that what we are currently suffering is the lowest point: to be able to say “This is the worst” means that we have not yet lost the capacity to name or narrate our suffering. The worst would be a state in which we could not even speak. And so we could turn Edgar’s maxim around a little. The attempt to put pain into words confirms the belief that we are not yet paralysed by meaninglessness; and so it is worth working at. We test out what we can bear to say or hear ourselves saying about pain and loss; we try our best to balance the need to find words, however reduced, however stumbling, against the need not to deny or soften the reality we confront.

Grief makes people sing: across the world, cultures mark grief with music – the wordless keening of mourners, moving into ritual and remembrance and, ultimately, text. And so we embark on the cultural history that The Penguin Book of Elegy draws on. As the editors Andrew Motion and Stephen Regan say in their introduction, the energy of elegiac poetry, poetry of grief and loss, arises partly from the tensions already noted. No composition is going to get the balance wholly right between raw truthfulness and some sort of consolation, and so elegy leaves the reader in a “troubled state”. But such a state is arguably what is most needed, in a strange way, if the poetry is not to fail radically as poetry, if it is not to become either a completely inarticulate scream of protest or a dangerously superficial exercise in acceptance. The poetry of grief is so often poetry at its most risky, and so its most compelling.

In a way, the classical elegy, with its pastoral and mythical conventions, is not necessarily the best place to start in charting the poetry of loss, simply because it is short on this kind of emotional tension. If I have a hesitation about how the editors describe the method of this collection, it is that it firmly sets out a central tradition represented by this classical idiom (nymphs and shepherds, gods and goddesses, a world of devastated but still fertile rurality). Bion’s great lament for Adonis and Moschus’s elegy for Bion (both from the second century BCE) are here, in excellent translations, and I can see that it would be impossible to exclude them. And when the editors say that John Milton’s “Lycidas” is “the first great elegy of the Christian era”, this is understandable to the extent that it is the first really systematic attempt to recreate the entire classical scenario in more or less Christian terms. But putting it like this can give the impression that the true elegy is precisely what that term suggests, a variation on the classical scheme; and this can have the effect of somewhat blunting the emotional “trouble” that the poetry of mourning ought to carry. It allows the editors to include many instances of elegiac verse not notably marked by any strong tension, including several somewhat tired exercises in the genre from the era between 1650 and 1850 (do we need both of Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s rather conventional elegies for Felicia Hemans?).

The introduction briefly mentions the significance of the Anglo-Saxon poetry of lament in moulding an English elegiac tradition, but this perspective is not fully developed and the selection could have made more use of mediaeval lament to bear this out. We do have a decent extract from the wonderful anonymous 14th century “Pearl”, but the earlier vernacular material – terse, metaphorically compressed, often close to the idiom of folk song – is under-represented.

Chaucer is absent, and there is nothing from the extensive heritage of religious and liturgical lament apart from the haunting Corpus Christi Carol. The dramatic vernacular devotional compositions featuring the laments of the Virgin Mary, and even dialogues between Mary and the crucified Christ, might have found a place (“Stand well, mother, under rood”, from somewhere around 1300, is the most sophisticated example, with Christ having to resist his mother’s passionate plea that he should save himself).

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[See also: Obedience, disobedience and the demands of the Catholic Church]

If we overlook the relative slightness of the pre-modern choices, most of the significant names are here. Apart from “Lycidas” we have Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, Shelley’s “Adonais”, quite a lot of Wordsworth, and a substantial selection from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”. Thomas Hardy’s poems in memory of his first wife are well represented, and quite rightly; they are among the most poignant as well as the most metrically varied mourning poems in the language, and are an excellent example of the way in which tension is evoked and maintained. They are about the loss both of an individual and of a relationship that had died long before: the suppressed intensity of his question “Why then, latterly, did we not speak?” contains a whole complex world of emotion.

The poetry of grief explores both the nature of what has been lost and our feelings about it; and so it is not surprising that “elegy” can cover poems that are deeply specific celebrations of an individual life and also poems that are first and foremost explorations of the state of grief itself, the poet’s real or imagined state of mind. Writers from St Augustine to Sigmund Freud (and Gerard Manley Hopkins in “Spring and Fall”) note the ambiguities of mourning that is really about oneself, about the sense of loss, as opposed to the memorialising of the dead. Ben Jonson’s lovely epitaphs for his children (with that unforgettable line about Jonson’s son as “his best piece of poetry”), Henry King’s overwhelmingly bold metaphors in the “Exequy” for his young wife and Melville’s “Monody” are fine poems about loss. Their focus on the state of mind of the survivor does not make them any less truthful or troubling than works whose force lies in their evocation of the singularities of an individual: Lorna Goodison “For My Mother”, Mick Imlah’s elegy for Stephen Boyd, Jackie Kay’s “Burying My African Father”, Andrew Motion’s “Serenade”; not to mention the poems by Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley borne out of the Troubles.

Some of the most memorable selections are poems that somehow manage both – above all Denise Riley’s wrenching sequence for her son, “A Part Song”, moving towards the plea, “Then let me rest, my dear”, begging for requiem not for the departed but for the mourner; or Thom Gunn’s “Lament”, with its vivid chronicle of a prolonged goodbye and a paradoxical sense of bereavement as “not enough like pain”.

The editors have chosen from a wide range of contexts, with a good representation of African-American and black British writers. Exactly what the principle is for the inclusion of material not originally written in English is obscure, though. It makes sense to provide translations of classical material (though two translations of Catullus’s lament for his brother, one contemporary, one not, is odd), but the handful of later non-Anglophones, including Paul Celan, Rainer Maria Rilke and the Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz, feels random. Both Celan and Różewicz, for instance, could do with more contextualising in the notes; both are represented by poems of exceptional condensed force, Celan’s dense and nightmarish Holocaust poem, “Deathfugue” being notoriously challenging for translator and interpreter (the version used is Jon Felstiner’s, a particularly sensitive rendering).

Given that Paul Muldoon’s rich and coruscating “Incantata”, written in memory of the American artist, Mary Farl Powers, has no less than six pages of notes, it is disappointing that several other poems are quite perfunctorily annotated. Richard Crashaw’s 17th-century tribute to St Teresa of Avila, for example (not really a poem of lament at all, a eulogy rather than an elegy), might have benefited from some orientation in the notes to Teresa’s autobiography, which illuminates a string of allusions in the poem. Layli Long Soldier’s harrowing semi-prose threnody “38”, for the Native Americans hanged in 1862 after a rising against the US government, could also do with some further detail.

A number of other pieces leave classical or historical references without gloss. Ironically too, at least one note in the abundant material about Muldoon’s poem misses a neat joke in the original. A reference to “the Thane of Calder” is solemnly explained in relation to Macbeth, oblivious of the fact that Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor: Muldoon is making a playful allusion to the politically radical publisher John Calder as an example of how to resist corrupting journalistic pressures on the arts. There are some other small errors, as in the attribution of a text from St John’s Gospel to St Matthew in the notes on one of Milton’s sonnets; and by no means everyone would be happy to identify Robert Herrick as a “metaphysical” poet.

Any collection as ambitious as this will have a few dropped catches of this sort. But overall it is a rewarding book to browse in. Some poets conventionally treated as “minor” come into their own in writing about loss. Christina Rossetti is a case in point, and the latter two pieces by the composer and poet of the First World War Ivor Gurney (“Cotswold Ways” and “Strange Hells”) are well-chosen reminders of his frustrated promise. Yeats is represented by seven poems – and indirectly by Auden’s fine sequence in his memory: it is a reminder that Yeats remains, with Tennyson and Hardy, one of the genuinely great poets of lament in the English language. Some of the newer translations from the classical corpus – especially Stephen Regan’s beautifully elegant rendering of Horace and Anthony Holden’s versions of Bion and Theocritus – are impressively fresh and compelling.

It is also welcome to have a scattering of less serious contributions – Gray’s poem on a cat drowned in a goldfish bowl, Thackeray’s immortal summary of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, and the music-hall classic, “Your baby ‘as gorn dahn the plug’ ole” – included as a poker-faced final item in the “Anon” section (there are erudite disquisitions to be pursued on the various stands of oral transmission here; I learned a slightly different version of the final chorus in around 1970).

The editors conclude their introduction by noting the way in which poetry of lament is grounded in the terrible specificity and unrepeatability of human loss, while at the same time quarrying the tradition for forms resilient enough to hold this specificity, and communicate in and with a shared culture of speaking and imagining. “Dialogue and inheritance”, as the editors put it, are everywhere. This is, of course, not unique to elegy; but Motion and Regan are right to see it as a particularly challenging element in the tradition of poetic lament – taking us back to the point about the literary exploration of grief being an experiment in what you can bear to say and hear. To say anything at all acknowledges that what you say belongs in a common culture; you speak so as to be heard, even if – initially – only by yourself, as an inheritor of a linguistic tradition. The completely unique is the completely inexpressible. And yet, to say anything at all about this person – this particular gap in your life, this set of memories or reproaches or thanksgivings – means starting again, looking for new perspectives.

Talking about pain involves the risk of exposing what is most interior and resistant to communication, to scrutiny and response, taking experiences of naked personal loss and anguish into the common life of language. It is a risk made possible by an act of faith that pain is recognisable across the boundaries between individuals and even between societies. That is why thinking about the poetry of “Memory, Mourning and Consolation” – to quote this collection’s subtitle – is so vital, at a time when competitive victimhood and weaponised suffering constantly try to persuade us that all pain ultimately isolates us rather than connects us. It is emphatically something that societies as much as individuals need to discover.

The admission that loss is real – whether the loss of who or what is loved, or the loss of some consoling self-mythologising, or whatever it may be – is not an admission of lethal failure but of ordinary common humanity. And when we are forced to contemplate the scale of loss involved in the impending environmental disasters that will so drastically change our human possibilities – unless we can turn our imaginations around – we might more readily grasp just what it is to acknowledge such a common humanity. This is not a theme directly tackled by this anthology, but the reader is bound to come away from a collection like this asking what the poetry of lament might help to teach us about the task of grieving for the threatened loss of an entire world.

The Penguin Book of Elegy
Edited by Andrew Motion and Stephen Regan
Penguin, 688pp, £40

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[See also: Justin Welby: “It’s better to be woke than asleep”]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special