- Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney
That the consolatory powers religion traditionally brings to bear against death have faded—in the West, anyway—was one of the defining problems of the poetry of the last century and is one of the clichés of the poetry of our own. That it falls to poets to devise, out of the moral resources of private feeling and public culture, new means of living past, if not consoling, paralyzing grief is a view as old as Arnold. What is new in the elegies of our time, Jahan Ramazani’s brilliant survey argues, is that poets have not only felt free to visit upon the heads of the dead the naked anger they once reserved for death, but have also felt that this act was somehow the central burden of elegiac poetry, the way poetry can—for those who read poetry, at least—respond to the moral dilapidation of our culture. Ramazani has a keen sense of the ethical work of elegy, a sense that is informed by, but not tyrannized by, both the psychological literature of that subject, and by other studies of the tradition of elegy as it was bequeathed to the poets he treats. He recognizes that elegy is at once an aesthetic form with a generic logic and a personal way of thinking through and weighing the meaning of urgent suffering. These two facts are necessarily in some tension, but, as Ramazani knows, the same can be said of every richly formal cultural response to the problems of living.
I was persuaded by the shape Ramazani tentatively discovered in the course of the elegiac impulse, how it darkens from Hardy’s awareness in the “Poems of 1912–13” of his ambivalence about his dead wife and his guilty consciousness of not perhaps having valued her adequately during her life, and from Owen’s animus against bystanders who expect high lessons from death (bystanders who sometimes include himself, Ramazani notes), to the jeeringly cool irony of Lowell against his parents, the rage—which keeps climbing into manic nursery rhyme—of Plath, and the dark prophetic chants of Ginsberg and Rich, to recent elegies by Clampitt and Heaney, which in hesitant and qualified ways attempt to recuperate some of the traditional resources of the genre. Ramazani is also able to avoid making too much of this shape, not [End Page 285] describing a story of fall and recovery (with a course like that of the traditional elegy), nor seeing the traditionalism of these last poets as a kind of bad faith retreat to played-out conceits.
The most attractive feature of the book is not its large-scale generalizations but its ability to render sympathetically the moral flavor of each of the poets it examines and to distinguish with tact and sensitivity among the projects of poets with closely similar aims. Ramazani attempts to see each poet in the light of that poet’s own ambitions, holding them strictly to the measure they themselves proclaim, and assessing exactly what is won for poetry by thinking about mourning in the different ways these poets adopt. This sympathetic effort to read each poet as that poet’s best self resembles the method Auden adopted in his elegies for public figures, and Ramazani’s chapter on Auden stands out for its judiciousness and fairmindedness.
One sometimes worries that when he considers less judicious poets Ramazani feels required, if only as an interpretive gambit, to share their blind spots. For example, he sometimes in the middle chapters seems about to adopt the poets’ assumption that the uglier the poet’s feelings the deeper and more authentic they are, and only in retrospect is it clear that that assumption is more a point of entry into the poems than a strongly held belief of the critic’s own. The traditional elegy—especially Tennyson’s In Memoriam—seems to be something of a straw man throughout, as if the poets of earlier generations only...