- First World War English Elegy and the Disavowal of Women’s Sentimental Poetics
Twentieth-century poets dismiss elegy with its commitments to consolation and compensation, Sandra M. Gilbert has argued, even as they invent “a new poetics of grief.”1 Jahan Ramazani adds that “Violence and irresolution … guilt and ambivalence” characterize the new “poetry of mourning,” which has arisen from the political events of the twentieth century, “as warfare was industrialized and mass death augmented.”2 This anti-elegy, these critics tell us, is poetry’s cure for the “insufficient … sentimental consolations of the funeral parlor, the condolence card, and the pop song.”3 Unlike other critics of elegy, Ramazani is explicit about high culture rejection of the popular nineteenth-century tradition of sentimental elegy, represented most famously by Felicia Hemans and Lydia Sigourney. Even women poets of the twentieth century must, he suggests, “bypass” the mournful poetess or nightingale tradition in order to establish a feminist poetics and to be taken seriously. It is difficult, however, to understand this anti-elegiac genre’s relationship to the demands of the twentieth-century state on its citizen poets if we discount the sentimental tradition, whether in the form of contemporary greeting cards or nineteenth-century laments about dying children.
“Who dies?” may, as Ariela Friedman puts it in her study of death and masculinity in modernist fiction, have become a more urgent question than “who speaks?”4 Critics of elegy in the twentieth century have shown that who we mourn and how we mourn are part of the production and reproduction of structures of gender, class, sexuality, and nationalism, obvious for example in the hagiography that followed the death of Ronald Reagan in 2004, an election year in which the United States was at war with Iraq. The main critical paradigms for understanding elegy all share this emphasis on the transmission of power and the continuity of social hierarchies, whether it be a question of [End Page 431] Bloom’s anxiety-of-influence model in which the poet replaces the dead rival through the act of poetic mourning; the Freudian-derived poetics in which poetry is a work of mourning that enables a successful compensation for loss through the substitution of another object for that which was lost; or, lastly, the feminist political model that treats classic elegy as a kind of initiation ritual, “a site of male bonding, power production, and authorial identification.”5 Such work defines a context in which we need to reconsider how critics make a claim for elegy as an important modern genre.
Poetry is able, as Ramazani asserts, to play a significant role in the cultural work of mourning because and not despite poets’ rejection of consolation. But if the work of mourning is also the work of cultural transmission, then we need to be careful about what disappears from view as a result of tracing a single line of descent for twentieth-century anti-elegy from the classic and classical English tradition of Milton’s “Lycidas” and Shelley’s “Adonais.”6 The dismissal of the sentimental tradition as purely mawkish and consolatory detaches the high culture anti-elegy of the twentieth century from a messier history in which the relationships among gender, sexuality, national identity, and genre are neither as static nor singular as they have seemed in even feminist analyses of the genre. The juvenile verse of the British feminist and peace activist Vera Brittain offers an important case study in the results of reconnecting the English elegy with the history of women’s sentimental poetics. Brittain’s diary, letters, and memoirs, in particular Testament of Youth (1933), have become ur-texts about women’s experiences of the First World War, making the war the origin for her commitments to internationalism, pacifism, and equal-rights feminism.7 Yet her first publication, Verses of a V.A.D. (1918), which appeared shortly before the end of the war, is a collection of elegiac poems written in a patriotic-heroic register that Elizabeth Marsland, in The Nation’s Cause (1991), has identified as characteristic of the war years.8 Such verse is the antithesis of the anti-elegy and the epitome of the...