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date: 04 December 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This book is divided into loose categories of ‘history’ and ‘knowledge, theme, and practice’, categories which certainly overlap and underline one another. The parts of the book classed under ‘History’ make contact with specialized thematic concerns raised elsewhere in the volume, and this is as it should be. Still, historical contextualization is itself a slippery eel in literary studies, and though these earlier parts of the book take up the range of thorny issues elaborated in the second section, they also address urgent problems in the very conceptualization of tradition within elegy. The areas of the book grouped under the category of ‘Knowledge, Theme and Practice’ are as alive to the complexities of history, tradition, and their manipulations as any of the articles in the ‘History’ section. It is hoped that this book will provide clarification of generative processes of elegy for both student and scholar.

Keywords: elegy, history, knowledge, theme, practice

Elegy inhabits a world of contradiction. The narrative of its historical development is tortuous at best, and the unraveling of its salient preoccupations betrays a persistent entanglement with its generic and formalist relatives. In its adjectival form it is all‐pervasive in literary criticism, and yet few scholars would profess certainty in knowing precisely what elegiac denotes. Most scholars of post‐classical elegy trace its foundations to antiquity, yet in the world of classical studies, there is still no consensus on the origin of elegy (though Gregory Nagy's essay in this very volume goes a long way toward calibrating competing forms and traditions into a synthesis which is as close to definitive as we are ever likely to get). When taken in the more contemporary sense as the framing of loss, elegy can be pulled between the worlds of the living and the dead, between the present life of sorrow and the vanished past of putative greater joy. Between the extremes of life and death, joy and sorrow, the receding past and the swiftly moving present, falls the elegy as we know it today. This is a burden uncertainly borne by many elegiac poems and art forms. More than any other literary kind, elegy pushes against the limits of our expressive resources precisely at the very moment in which we confront our mortality, which is as much to say that it throws into relief the inefficacy of language precisely when we need it most. It follows naturally that the limits of poetic utterance have surfaced as recurrent motifs in elegy throughout its history, certainly well before the various manifestations of twentieth‐century rhetorical theory conceptualized the sorry fate of the signifier. Where elegy marks a passage from the inchoate gasp to the formalized utterance, from the chaos of the mind to the ordered presentation of a publicly available expression, an implicit self‐reflexivity is inevitable. In In Memoriam, Tennyson demurs that his elegy for the greatest love of his life—a poem more than ten years in the making—can be ‘given in outline and no more’. How could it be otherwise? And yet, what reserves of audacity are required to make of elegy an (p. 2) implicit meditation on its own procedures? Samuel Johnson's famous complaint about Milton's ‘Lycidas’ haunts many of the chapters in this volume: ‘Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief.’

Both the audacity and the despair inherent in elegy have been oft‐discussed topics in the scholarly literature, and this volume takes them up within their cultural specificities as well as their historically thematic continuities. There is little scholarly consensus about what constitutes an elegy, or how to distinguish between elegy and the broader category of elegiac literature. This volume emphatically does not seek to establish a simple definitive definition, certainly not one that would hold for all periods; however, a broadly based survey of the field is clearly among the desiderata of this Handbook, one that can be responsive both to a pressing need for clarification of the fundamental issues, and to innovative developments in our understanding of the field. As such, the Handbook is divided into loose categories of ‘history’ and ‘knowledge, theme, and practice’, categories which, to be sure, certainly overlap and underline one another. The chapters I have classed under ‘History’ do indeed make contact with specialized thematic concerns raised elsewhere in the volume, and this is as it should be. Still, historical contextualization is itself a slippery eel in literary studies, and though these earlier chapters take up the range of thorny issues elaborated in the second section, they also address urgent problems in the very conceptualization of tradition within elegy.

It is the particular privilege of this volume to open with Gregory Nagy's groundbreaking chapter on ancient Greek elegy, a chapter which fully reconsiders the tradition and its function in its ancient Greek form. Nagy wends his way through reconsideration of the elegiac couplet and its metrical variations, finding that, unlike the hexameters of ancient epic, elegy uses its own peculiar hexameters existing in a codependent relationship with the elegiac pentameter. Disentangling the tradition of lament (which is also a choral medium) from that of elegy (which is monodic), one of his powerful claims is that elegy could function as an antidote for the sufferings of lament. Here we have a claim that is resonant of many of the essays in this volume, one that works its way into contemporary elegy as well: mourning and lamentation produce song, and the song gives pleasure, what Nagy terms ‘the delights of elegy’.

Negotiating the implications of such delight has been a preoccupation of scholars and elegists both. The self‐regarding elegy is not a product of postmodernism. Paul Allen Miller's chapter on elegy in ancient Rome, while remarking that it relates only indirectly to the subject of death, does point out that the largely erotic poetry written by canonical Latin elegists, more or less plaintive, are ‘ironic, darkly comic, politically self‐conscious’. In fact, Miller argues that ancient Latin elegy could be self‐reflexive, to the point that its very ground of reflection can be located in its own narration of experience. This leads to his argument about elegy as assuming a split subjectivity, whereby ‘an unassimilable remainder’ is revealed in the breach between the ideological categories of traditional Roman life and the speaking subject. Still, Miller warns us that the complexities of Latin elegy do not make much of the ‘mourning, self‐pity, and long good byes that would characterize its modern form’.

(p. 3)

Miller's warning leads naturally to another theme of the earlier historical essays; that is, the difficulties of synthesizing the literature to the category of elegy, the scholarly worry that the cultural continuity many of us feel impelled to posit is itself a literary fiction. After all, Gordon Braden's chapter on classical love elegy in the Renaissance opens baldly with a consideration of the appropriateness of his subject for this volume: ‘That a book on the literature of loss and mourning would make space for something called the love elegy is to some extent an accident, the terminological legacy of Renaissance enthusiasm for a group of classical Latin love poems.’ Jamie Fumo in her chapter on later medieval elegy notes that ‘Elegy as a “pure” or self‐articulated form did not exist in medieval England; when employed by modern critics with reference to poems such as Pearl or Book of the Duchess, the term is no more than a matter of critical convenience.’ The chapter on late Roman elegy by Michael Roberts begins by immediately announcing the variety of forms and subjects taken by elegy in the late Roman period. Even Andy Orchard, writing about Old English elegy, observes that ‘Anglo‐Saxon authors writing at very different periods, and for very different audiences, only bolster the notion of a shared elegiac sensibility that permeates Anglo‐Saxon literature.’ This provides tremendous challenges for understanding the generic and formalist underpinnings of particular poems; as Orchard cautions, ‘Such a pervasive attitude has made the particular identification of individual poems as “elegies” something of a tendentious business.’

For all of these anxieties and warnings about elegy as a category, it seems to provide an important forum for structuring an understanding of certain kinds of poems, a category that engages with the generic variety and thematic fluidity of what has come down to us as elegy. No one is keen to relinquish it as a term of great—if challenging—significance. Michael Roberts notes that elegy in late antiquity was highly adaptable to subject matter, its form serving a variety of purposes, from the martyrdom of St Hippolytus to Christian moral instruction to the later life musings on earlier affairs by the mid‐sixth‐century Maximianus. Orchard's chapter on Old English elegies, for all its (highly successful) care to avoid tendentiousness, notes not only the linkage of the theme of exile with elegy, but observes what he terms an ‘elegiac instinct’ pervasive in Anglo‐Saxon literature, ‘as befits a culture torn between worlds’. Orchard's essay is itself haunted by the spectre of an entire earlier elegiac tradition now lost to silence, an earlier oral tradition whose distant echoes he hears in what is extant. Fumo's chapter on later medieval elegy, after offering its caveat about the nomenclature of elegy, moves on to echo Miller's thesis about the self‐reflexive nature of the genre. For Fumo, however, this reflexivity plays itself out in a tension between a Stoic–Boethian assertion of loss (for which grief would be unsuitable) and the creative potential of loss, a potential that yields poetry with a recuperative function. And even as Gordon Braden notes that the linkage ‘suggested by the label is something of a category mistake’, he assures that ‘it plays out in literary history, though, as something other than just a mistake’. Love, after all, is a frustrating business, fraught with the fear and the pain of loss. We should not forget that Laura dies three‐quarters of the way through Petrarch's lyric love sequence to her, (p. 4) making the concluding poems easily assimilable to the funeral elegy. It is true, as Miller points out, that Tibullus weeps outside his mistress's door only as a prelude to breaking it down, but classical love elegy in the Renaissance thereby witnesses, as Braden reminds us, an elegiac remembering of a sexual golden age long past. In fact, wondering about the provenance of elegy as a term or, more important, its applicability to one's very meditation on elegy, has become virtually a sub‐theme of writing about elegy. William Watterson, writing about the emergence of the English pastoral elegy, notes that ‘pastoral elegy is an academic category invented by scholars seeking to establish a link between Theocritus's first “Idyll” (Thyrsis' lament for Daphnis) and all subsequent mourning poems set in the locus amoenus or green world.’ For Watterson too, then, it is a multifaceted genre, but one with immense descriptive and explanatory potential. Like elegies before and after, Watterson reads the significance of the socio‐economic circumstances that inform the pastoral elegy. Dispossession as a thematic undercurrent is never far from the encomium to the land.

The Hebrew Bible, of course, is an obvious source, both for elegy, lament and complaint and for the exploration of generic hybridity. Edward Greenstein's delineation of city‐laments in this chapter, for example, or his careful teasing out of the distinction between complaint and lament, as well as his cross‐cultural calibrations with the literature of Mesopotamia, recalls the necessary fluidity of elegiac forms that virtually all the historical essays elaborate. Greenstein offers a profound reading that culminates in elegy's engagement with protest, the circling back to the question, addressed to God Himself, ‘'eikha, “How can it be?” ’

Of course, ‘how can it be?’ serves as both the persistent question and the stubbornly unanswerable demand that underlies much of the elegiac tradition. At different moments the implicit question has functioned as a chastening reminder of a higher power. For some American Puritans, as Jeffrey Hammond points out, the plain‐style sermon became a model for elegy, and theological didacticism became its central focus. Still, it is the funeral elegy that is most closely associated with the American Puritans who, like their British predecessors, also appropriated its emotional valence for political positioning; the legitimacy of Cromwell's rule, for example, was a common theme. For early New England elegists, repentance is a key term, but it is a repentance that speaks to public affirmation, thereby bridging the distance between private and public, individual and community. The elegy, that is, was the forum in which a faith community of worthy souls could be established. The history of American elegy, however, grows increasingly more complex. Hammond's emphasis is markedly different from that of Max Cavitch, who discusses American constitutional elegy. Focusing on the period from the late eighteenth century and moving up to the present day, Cavitch argues that American national difference in literature can be tracked in the terms of its engagement with specifically American constitutional principles. Cavitch returns us to the great theme of elegy as a flexible form and its practices under persistent self‐scrutiny. In this sense, American memory is a self‐critical memory, one that holds under question its citizens' relative adherence to universal democratic norms. This, too, is a matter for the communal memory shaped in the realm of culture; numerous elegists have taken up the subject of slavery, a focal (p. 5) point of national anxiety and the most trenchant example for illustrating the practices of self‐critical memory as they enter the poetry of loss.

If there is a central focus slowly emerging in this historical overview, it can be viewed in terms of what I earlier called the audacity of elegy, its inward‐looking reflection on its own efficacy, procedures, or even right to exist in the realm of culture. As this story unfolds, though, the self‐reflexivity of elegy begins to be taken as a point of vulnerability that deepens the challenge to find in it, if not a redemptive or recuperative forum, then an affirming aesthetic, in which even poems despairing of their own capacity for consolation, or even resolution, assert a value in their own production as aesthetic products. The propriety of asking questions about its own propriety becomes part of its circularity, and that circularity slowly emerges as one of elegy's signatures. Elegy may not be salvific, but in its self‐questioning mode it establishes a space for reflection on cultural continuity. Even the immediacy of the funeral elegy, whether American Puritan or English early modern, could not entirely shrug off the elegy's self‐burdening. From the mid‐seventeenth century to the mid‐eighteenth century in England, the funeral elegy flourished and was then exhausted. As Lorna Clymer points out in her survey of the period, the English funeral elegy often evoked the religious sublime by attending to three related concerns: lament, praise, and consolation, with consolation naturally appropriating the vanitas motif for its resolution. As Augustan decorum came to dislodge the obsession with the decaying corpse, the question of how to dislocate grieving from the grotesque became paramount. Clymer concludes that this history ‘suggests some of the complexities and paradoxes involved in making art out of mortality, in which an aesthetic, intended to be meaningful, even beautiful, is created from perplexing issues raised by the traumatic, often grotesque subjects of death, decay, separation, and change’. In Helen Deutsch's chapter on the prospect poem of the eighteenth century, consolation inevitably emerges as a central theme. The poets she explores, Goldsmith and Gray among them, are sharply aware of the limits of nostalgia and the imprecisions of memory in the evocation of place. The consolation that Deutsch reads in these poets is not the consolation afforded by unquestioned faith in a distant God, however; this is consolation born of the reader's recognition of the endurance of literature, of the pleasures of a text that, however fraught with self‐contradiction, can still arouse sympathy.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the chapters on Romanticism, though strikingly different in conception, both posit the expression of grief in elegy as highly qualified. Timothy Morton's meditation on the dark ecology of elegy might serve as a radical counterpart to Deutsch's reading of the loco‐descriptive poem in the eighteenth century. If Deutsch sees sympathy aroused for the lost ideals of a vanished past mediated via material objects, Morton sees the materiality of elegy as essentially environmental, but with a difference. This deeply innovative thesis joins many of its neighbours in the positing of a resistance to closure. Morton goes even further by positing a resistance to the collapse of subject–object dualism so dear to deep ecology, and once so dear to the historical definitions of Romanticism. Through intricate readings of Shelley and Wordsworth, Morton's dark ecology surprisingly (p. 6) offers Cartesian dualism as a corrective to the naivety of deep ecology's efforts to vivify matter. In Morton's reading of Shelley's ‘Alastor,’ loving people entails figuring out how to relate to the fact of narcissism. ‘To love the earth properly would entail acknowledging the very artificiality and otherness which ecological discourse tries to negate.’ Elegy, then, is the performance of a ‘melancholy knowingness’.

For Stuart Curran, elegy in the Romantic period ‘is seldom the expression of grief per se,’ an observation that follows from the recognition that elegy is for the living, even if the living are not quite sure what they ought to expect from it. Curran brilliantly reviews the march of elegy through the period, beginning with Anna Seward's epic elegies, to Charlotte Smith's highlighting of affect and psychological realism, to Wordsworth's indebtedness to Smith's influence. Here too the question of irresolution, of a suffering that resists consolation—at least until Wordsworth's later‐life conversion to Anglican orthodoxy—is thrown into sharp relief. Likewise in Shelley's ‘Adonais’, it is the dead who are accorded power, even over the living. By the time we reach Shelley, however, the elegiac voice is not simply self‐reflexive, but offering its inward turn to the subject of its own cultural displacement; it has no choice, that is, but to regard its own condition, its own necessary self‐regarding position in a society that would make no room for it.

Entering the Victorian period, then, provides a sort of balance to the historical trajectory thus far. As Erik Gray observes in his chapter on Victorian elegy, Victorian Britain itself is largely characterized as a culture of mourning, and bereavement as a theme was a more obvious touchstone in the Victorian consciousness. Tennyson's In Memoriam was second only to the Bible for Queen Victoria in her mourning for her beloved Albert. The poem is at once intensely private and intensely public, in so far as it negotiates a deeply felt loss within the context of the public debates over the traditional grounds of consolation: with the gradual diminution of faith that characterizes the nineteenth century, not only Tennyson but also Hardy, Browning, Hemans, Barrett‐Browning, and others turn to the special powers accorded to elegy itself. If Gray charts the decline of faith that affected Victorian elegy, Vincent Sherry reads modernism in the terms of its anxieties about decline in general, notably political and social. Sherry mediates his reading of modernism through its own engagement with the culture of decadence of the 1890s. Concentrating primarily on Pound and Eliot, Sherry reads modernist poetry as haunted by its precarious time in history, its fragmented sense of a grasp after the new even as the present is swiftly fading from the poets' conceptual grasp. Elegy becomes an elegizing of the very self attempting to stand its ground in a world gone awry. Can there be consolation in such a world? If ever the question were to be asked, surely the fate of British elegy between the wars would be the most disheartening—but probably also the most urgent—context in which to ask about it. If for Sherry the present recedes into the past before it can be properly digested, for Patricia Rae the inter‐war poets are determined to stake their place in history, positively to document their self‐consciousness about elegiac writing with a steely determination to enter a history reflectively recognized as historic. This is not the forum for pastoral consolation or faith in a higher principle. If elegy accomplishes any sort of synthesis, it is with its (p. 7) own projection into the future. Elegists respond to elegy, respond to the imperative to deflate the expectations of consolatory closure.

At this point our history has veered into a reflection of elegy as a mode of engaging with the disappointments of time and place. Elegy as a self‐regarding form becomes not simply a forum for meta‐narrative, but a way of realizing what has been done to culture. Arnold Krupat's chapter on American Indian elegy takes up Gerald Vizenor's theorization of what he calls ‘continuance and survivance—this latter term a compound of the notion of survival through resistance’. These depart from the standard ‘Euramerican narratives of progress and dominance’. As might be expected, the elegies mourn lost rights, lost worlds, lost dignity. But they also testify to continuance, to survival, and sometimes that survival is conditioned by the very acts of elegiac writing. To mourn the fate of culture within elegy, then, is to testify to the astonishing fact of cultural survival, however qualified it must be. Maeera Shreiber's chapter on contemporary Jewish American elegy also takes up the subject of survival, but her focus is more concerned with the continuation of Jewish rituals of mourning and memory in Jewish poetry. Two of her poets, Charles Reznikoff and Allen Ginsberg, perform what might be termed an ‘anti‐Kaddish’, an invocation of the Jewish prayer of religious affirmation (the Kaddish) recited on the occasion of the death of a relative; the invocation, however, is offered in the service not of a rejection per se, but of an effort to connect it to and redefine it in terms of the poets' aesthetic immediacy. She reads Adrienne Rich as embodying its historical meaning with deep understanding in despite of the heresies she boldly expounds. In all of these instances, however, continuity is asserted both with the religious and the elegiac tradition; that is, these elegies demarcate a community in which the comforts of poetic ritual make sense.

Bonnie Costello's observations about elegy and ecology in twentieth‐century poetry remark the endurance of both pastoral and elegy, even in a world that seems to have denuded them both. Modern poetry, she observes, has not given up ‘the pastoral contextualization of death’, but the pastoral is now also the very subject of mourning, not just its context. Still, what many of her poets turn to is not some alternative, greener world, but the affirmations of the palimpsest of language, what she reads in Susan Howe as the ‘relentless confrontation with textual ghosts’. Indeed, all elegiac ghosts are textual, but the text does not always yield up the merely ghostly. Sandra Gilbert's chapter on ways of dying in the contemporary age trains a sharp eye on the technologies of life support, the minute details of hospital experience in all of its alienating details, and on the stark physicality of the dying body. These are only vaguely reminiscent of the funeral elegies that I have mentioned above. Instead we have a distinctly contemporary fixation on the particularities of the medicalized body even in a culture witness to a ‘mounting death denial’. As such, Gilbert's focus is the contemporary medicalized elegy, a kind that would have been unthinkable in any previous age. Unsentimental and unwilling to find deliverance in the aesthetic, the medicalized elegy nonetheless provides a form of release, a discovery of voice that knows, if it knows anything, that it speaks of its own making. Ross Chambers, writing about AIDS, elegy, and testimonial, also observes the complicated relationship (p. 8) between elegy and the longing for aesthetic redemption; however, such longing is rarely distant from anger and rage, and therefore never far from the effort to make of the AIDS elegy a social genre that could offer the prospect of interaction ‘with the oblivious or indifferent’. For Chambers, the elegy adopts the testimonial precisely because it refuses to turn its back on the ‘urgent concern with the responsibilities of the living’. Clifton Spargo's chapter on the contemporary anti‐elegy takes the measure of the elegy's self‐subversions through history, but finds that in its contemporary form it has reached an apex of resistance that plays out also in the realm of ethics. For Spargo, ‘anti‐elegy arises as a species of ethical complaint, turning against the history of consolation precisely so as to find fault with the strategies of commemoration the poet‐mourner inherits as normative in her society’. Focusing on Elizabeth Bishop, Ann Sexton, and Jorie Graham, Spargo's chapter reveals again that contemporary elegy is intensely self‐conscious; for Spargo, this self‐consciousness plays out not only in the terms of the self‐reflexive engagement we have been observing throughout its history, but in its acuteness with respect to its own temporality, and to the ethical considerations that are thereby inextricably tied to it.

The chapters in this Handbook grouped under the category of ‘Knowledge, Theme and Practice’ are as alive to the complexities of history, tradition, and their manipulations as any of the chapters in the ‘History’ section. I have separated them for practical reasons, realizing that any heuristic employed to deal with so expansive a subject as elegy is bound to betray its vulnerabilities. Given the current state of elegy studies, it has been necessary to provide an historical overview that would be helpful to students and scholars trying to make sense of the genre. An historical overview, however, could not possibly be fully comprehensive. While a thematic section could not presume to complete exhaustive coverage of the subject, it does provide further reflections on elegy, both historical and contemporary, from vantage points not necessarily taken up in the first section. In my remarks here, rather than provide a historical review as I do for the first section, I would like to discuss some of the principles of selection that organized these chapters.

We have three chapters that treat specifically women's elegy, and each deals with a different historical expanse, ranging from early modern to contemporary. Even now, there is still a great deal of controversy about how to understand elegies by women or, perhaps more important, about whether such a deliberately restrictive designation is desirable. Grouped with these chapters by Lauren Shohet, Anne Mellor, and Anita Helle are Lisa Schnell's chapter on mourning children in early modern England, and Jonathan Goldberg's chapter on homosexual elegy in the Renaissance. These chapters tend to highlight the subtlety of the reciprocity between margin and centre within culturally specific moments.

I have included two chapters on the relationship between drama and elegy, one by Jonathan Crewe (on early modern drama) and the other by Catherine Burroughs, who concentrates on drama of the eighteenth century. The drama has often asked questions similar to those raised by elegy, and this Handbook offers two powerful examples of how to engage their synthesis. This section is also the natural home for (p. 9) Thomas Pfau's chapter on literary theory and Jerrold Hogle's chapter on the Gothic, both of which seek to broaden the generic horizon of the study of elegy. Jahan Ramazani's chapter about elegy and transnationalism similarly charts the rich tensions that arise between and within culturally diverse kinds. These chapters invigorate our understanding of the intricacies of the relationships between literary forms.

The final chapters of this Handbook take up subjects often classed under the general heading of ‘material culture’. Eric Gidal on museum culture; Paul Coates on cinema; Elizabeth Helsinger on nineteenth‐century painting; Joshua Ellenbogen on photography; and Kirk Savage on war monuments all respond to an increasing scholarly interest in the physical artifacts of memorialization. As such, they take up issues in the intersections and cross‐pollinations between the text and the physical spaces of preservation.

It may be, as Elizabeth Bishop famously opines in one of her oft‐cited elegies, that ‘the art of losing isn't hard to master’. What is hard is an understanding of the art, the relationship between the generative processes of elegy and the lived experience of losing. In this relationship we discern a fundamental process of life. It is my hope that this volume will offer clarification of these processes for both student and scholar. (p. 10)