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Sunday, 10 April 2011





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The elegy and its many faces

[Part 3 ]

Last week I discussed the reach and significance of four of the most well-known English elegies pointing out the complex ways in which they served to expand this poetic genre. Today, I wish to focus on the ways in which the elegy evolved in the twentieth century expanding the discursive parameters of this form. I would like to pay closer attention to some American development of the elegy form during the past five or six decades. What we observe here are some interesting poetic moves by which the elegy was reaffirmed, subverted, extended and given new direction by writers such as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg all representing different trends associated with the modern elegy. What we witness here is the growth of elegy into a capacious form with many faces.

Before I examine the experiments of some of the modern poets like Lowell and Plath in the elegy form, I wish to focus on some of the elegies of Walt Whitman who is a transitional figure (1819-1892); his elegies point to the modern growths in this poetic genre capturing new terrains of emotion. Whitman infused American and English poetry with a contemporary ring that was to reverberate throughout the twentieth century. His distinctiveness arises largely from his uncanny ability to gauge the heart-beat of modern life and capture it in his locutions and cadences. The various upheavals of the Jacksonian America find echoes in his poetry dealing with family and personal themes. It is evident that his private anguish that finds expression in many of his poems is given density and definition by being embedded in national traumas and class conflicts. Whitman was able to create a richly personal and path breaking form of verse that reconfigured the expansive impulses of the young nation that was America,

Two of Whitman's most celebrated elegies are 'O Captain! My Captain!' and 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom's'. Both poems commemorate the life and death of Abraham Lincoln. Of the two, O Captain My Captain is by far the more popular; however, in my judgment,' Lilacs' is the more compelling and artistically accomplished. 'O Captain' can be described as a melodramatic elegy in traditional rhyme and meter that compares Lincoln to a fallen captain of a ship who has navigated it through stormy waters. 'Lilacs' is a free-flowing elegy that centers around three dominant tropes - Lincoln as Western star, the poet as the singing thrush and the poem creed by Whitman as the lilac offered as eulogy. He connects these tropes to ruminations on life and death, war and peace. He begins Lilacs in an arresting way.

When lilacs in the dooryards bloom'd
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
In this poem Whitman turned the witnessing of the masses of Lincoln's funeral into a compelling ritual. The coffin becomes a point of testimony,
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land.
Whitman's poem is seen as frail sprig of lilac thrown into the coffin of the dead president
Here, coffin that slowly passes
I give you my sprig of lilac.

What is interesting about Walt Whitman's 'Lilacs' as an elegy on Lincoln is the complex ways in which he combined traditional imperatives and modern demands. He adhered to certain traditional features of the elegy while introducing new ones and enabling its future growth. This is evident in his language and style; he has succeeded in ushering in a new tone and widening the perimeter of elegy as a poetic genre. At the level of content, too, this bent of mind finds visibility. The poem dealing with death wakes to a new life of social awareness.

As we move to the centre of the poem it becomes apparent that the poet has put into fruitful play the contrary demands of historic specificities of the situation and the conventions of the elegy. What Whitman has been able to establish a horizontal comradeship among the masses instead of the customary vertical authoritativeness of the object of celebration that characterize traditional elegies. As Peter Sacks pertinently asked, 'how could he devise an elegy based on brotherhood and comradeship as opposed to the more traditional poem of reestablished fatherhood?.

Let us consider next the elegies of the British-born American poet W.H. Auden. His work, too, displays certain innovative features that served to push back the horizon of the elegy as a conventionalised form. Auden was a prolific writer. Very early on in his career, he acquired a justifiable reputation for technical virtuosity, experimentations in diverse verse forms, social awareness, use of popular culture and colloquial speech. He succeeded in letting in some fresh air into Anglo-American poetry. Because he wrote so much, at times he descended into glibness and slickness. As the British critic A. Alvarez once observed, 'he has, in short, published a great deal of verse which, like Byron's tales, seem to have been written while dressing for dinner.'

In terms of our immediate interest, the arc of growth of the elegy, Auden's work is of compelling interest.

He was a clever writer who was able to infuse the elegy form with a new dynamism. Among his elegies, I wish to focus on ‘In Memory of Yeats,’ In Memory of Freud’ and ‘In Memory of Henry James’. What all three elegies have in common is the skill of the poet in enacting the uniqueness of his chosen object, the dead protagonist, in the texture of the poem itself.

There are a number of feature which distinguish Auden’s elegies. One of them is his desire to effect a symbolic union between the poet and his celebrant in contradiction to some poets like Yeats who prefer to enforce a distance between the two. In many instances Auden privileges a kind of self-abnegation which is in sharp contrast to many elegies that give into a kind of strong self-actualization. What is interesting about Auden’s effort is that it does not neglect issues of self-division, self-doubts from seeking to achieve the kind of union with the dead that he so purposefully seeks. As he said

all real unity commences In consciousness of differences.

Another interesting and innovative feature in Auden’s elegies is his determination to imitate and capture the inner form of the writer or thinker he is celebrating. For example in his elegy which begins memorably with the following assertion

He disappeared in the dead of winter;
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted
And the snow disfigured the public statues
The memory sank in the mouth of the dying day.


Auden attempts to imitate the language and representational predilections of Yeats. Similarly in the elegy in memory of Freud, Auden imitates the originator of psychoanalysis by subjecting him to a form of psychoanalysis that Freud himself would have relished.

If some traces of autocratic pose,
The paternal strictness he distrusted, still
Clung to his utterance and features

It was a protective coloration In the elegy on the well-known novelist Henry James, Auden captures the syntactic movements that characterize James writings. These are indeed novel features, representational strategies if you like, that Auden has chosen to introduce into his poetry.

Another interesting feature in W.H. Auden’s elegies is his ability to combine the personal with the social, political and cultural. He seems to be inveighing against the tendency in modern societies to atomize and alienate individuals from the larger collectivity; the corollary of this is that he was keenly interested in humanizing the individual which was a way of making him or her a vital part of the larger group.

The next poet that I would like to discuss briefly is Robert Lowell (1917-1977).He is regarded as one of the most important post-War poets writing in English. He started out as a poet who displayed a complex formalism and technical virtuosity, but later evolved into a confessional poet who used the free verse form with great dexterity. Lowell is closely associated with the so-called confessional school of poetry which included such other distinguished writers as John Berryman and Sylvia Plath. In his later poetry gathered in collections such as ‘ Life Studies’ one sees an intense personal, unabashedly autobiographical and unflinchingly honest poetry. Lowell is also a highly erudite poet who is deeply familiar with classical literature. He was also successful in developing a kind of free-association technique. Reminiscent of Freud, that enabled him to reach the deeper layers of his unconscious. He was able to write poetry that caught the quick of experience and imminent psychological breakdowns that he encountered first hand. Detractors of Robert Lowell maintain that he is too narrowly self-obsessed.

Traditional elegies

Our focus of attention here is on his many carefully crafted elegies. They are indeed different from the kind of elegies that we are customarily used to reading. He writes about his parents and grandparents and other relatives in highly unflattering terms. They are treated in very harsh locutions the kind of which is alien to the spirit of traditional elegies. The elegy titled, ‘In Memory of Arthur Winslow’, dealing with his grandfather, is a good example that displays his characteristic interests and preferences.

This Easter, Arthur Winslow, five years gone
I came to mourn you, not to praise the craft
That netted you a million dollars, late
Hosing out gold in Colorado’s waste,
Then lost it all in Boston’s real estate.
Here the tone of the poem is clearly one that stands in sharp contrast to the general run of elegies written in English

What is interesting about Robert Lowell’s elegies is that while they draw on and display features associated with traditional elegies such as classical and Christian myths, processions of mourners, genealogies, conventional tropes etc, he uses them in novel, at times self-subverting ways. As Jahan Ramazani who has written so perceptively about the modern elegy says, ‘in Lowell’s elegies, ‘apostrophe does not recall but taunts the dead; religious myth does not bless but damns them; the procession does not revere but neglects the dead.’ What Lowell, then, has achieved in his confessional elegies is something audacious and provocative.

The next poet that I wish to call attention to is Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). When we examine the evolution of the elegy in modern times, I would like to submit that Sylvia Plath;s work deserves careful consideration. Some of her poems – in fact the more successful ones – were published after her death. Her poems, for the most part, are intensely personal and deploy string and violent imagery. She was also deeply interested in issues of female agency in an essentially patriarchal world. Sylvia often deals with issues of suffering, despair, oppression and death. However through this gloom and bitterness sparkles a certain hope – not everyone, I am sure, with agree with this judgment of mine. She was influenced by a large number of poets ranging from Dylan Thomas to her once husband Ted Hughes; however, the two poets who impacted her most profoundly are Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell. Lowell’s poetry opened a pathway to her confessional poetry – a path that had been closed to her before her acquaintance with Lowell..

‘ Daddy’ is one of the most widely-discussed and anthologized poems of Plath. It dramatizes through its elegiac moves the anti-patriarchal sentiments in its diverse forms that inhabit her poetry. It is a poem that moves along the pathway cleared by Robert Lowell. In the second stanza she asserts

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before, I had time –
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God
Ghastly statue with one grey toe
Big as a Frisco seal.

The violence that animates this poem is clearly manifest in these lines. In this poem there is constant border crossing between nursery rhyme to ritual exorcism, from anger to appeasement, English to German. Through this means Plath seeks to undermine the validity of the elegy form itself as traditionally understood.


Clearly, ‘Daddy’ constitutes a critique of her domineering yet caring father. Her ambivalence towards him is reflected in her representational strategies. At the same time it is more than a critique of her father; it is also a critique of patriarchy in general as well as the language which bears the traces of that patriarchy. Anyone familiar with Jacque Lacan’s writings would detect an affinity of interest here. The tropes contained in ‘Daddy’ are extremely revealing. At one point, she identifies her father with fascism and Nazism and her with Jewish oppression and suffering. Plath and Lowell and Ginsberg and several other modern poets fashioned a complex psychopathology to characterize their parents. In this regard the chosen stance of a poet like Munidasa Cumaratunga in Piya Samara offers a sharp contrast. I will discuss this topic in one of my later columns.

The last poet that I wish to discuss is Langston Hughes (1902-1967). He is a celebrated African-American writer who is close associated with the Harlem Renaissance He wrote sixteen books of poetry, two novels, seven collections of short stories, nine children’s books, and was well-known as a public poet.. He is the author of a number of elegies that deal with the troubling black experience in the United States. He combined an invigorating cosmopolitanism (he was fluent in a number of European languages) with a deep and unflinching interest in African-American vernacular culture. He drew on the black dialect, which was generally looked down upon, as well as blues and jazz with great confidence. He inspired a number of other writers to follow in his footsteps.

Langston Hughes’ immersion in folk culture and oral traditions did not preclude an informed interest in the deeper existential issues of life such as identity, existence, freedom, and the necessary creed of human beings as social beings. Indeed it is his ability to reach these themes through the vernacular culture that makes his writings so compellingly rewarding. Hughes is the author of several African-American elegies. The term African-American elegy might appear to be a curious conjunction in view of the fact that the elegy developed as a’ white’ literary form. On the other hand the idea of ‘sorrow songs; ( Du Bois’ preferred term to name elegiac poetry of the blacks) comes naturally to the African American poetic sensibility.

As I state earlier, Langston Hughes drew on the riches of jazz and blues and spirituals, ad all of them contain a decisively elegiac temper. The idea of loss including death is central to the blues, and blues represent the primary figure of African-American structure of feeling. Therefore the very effort of Langston Hughes to galvanize his elegies with the energy of blues is an important innovation that he effected in the elegy form. What is interesting to note is that the blues and elegies as expressive forms share not only thematic and visionary similarities but also affinities in relation to the impact they have on the potential hearers and readers. The blues also offered Hughes a way of investing his elegies dealing with loss with a greater degree of complexity and density. As he himself remarked, ‘the Blues always impressed me as being very sad, sadder even than the Spirituals, because their sadness is not softened with tears, but hardened with laughter, the absurd …’

Poems of mourning

What is significant about the poems of mourning of Langston Hughes contained in volumes such as ‘The Panther and the Lash’ is that they enlarge the aesthetic compass of the elegy written in English by focusing on the collective traumas of the black people as well as by drawing on representational registers associated with black forms of creative expression such as blues and jazz and their vernacular idiom. In this way, he was able to widen the discursive terrain of the elegy.

What this discussion points to is the fact that in the twentieth century the elegy developed in the Anglo-American tradition in complex ways making it into a capacious concept. In this regard, I wish to underline seven important features. First, the subject-matter of elegies swelled in unforeseen ways. Second, in terms of style, technique and representational strategies several consequential innovations were introduced, making some of the poems more anti-elegies than elegies. The subject-position of the poet-narrator changed drastically. Instead of the subject who stood in awe in front of the dead person, we find denunciations, criticisms, strictures on the chosen object of mourning as evidenced in the poetry of Lowell, Plath and Ginsberg.

Fourth as the modern elegy evolved it became more a process than a static product. Fifth, many of the modern elegists sought to infuse social, cultural, political valences into their mourning as illustrated in the poems of Hughes. Sixth, the concept of justices and its violation which has always been a feature of elegy was inflected in new and daring ways. In traditional elegies, as for example in Lycidas and Adonais justice was violated when destiny decided to cut short prematurely the life of the poets they are celebrating. In modern elegies this violation of justices takes the form of social oppression, male domination and so on. Thus the force of the critique is directed not at divine powers but rather at the structures of dominance in society. Seventh in elegies written in the twentieth century one perceives a struggle between lyrical subjectivity and the collectively sanctioned rhetorical structures leading to what Derrida termed ‘participation without belonging.’

What I have sought to do so far in my discussions of the English elegy including its American advances is to create a background against which elegies written in Asian countries can be usefully compared and contrasted. To be sure extremely important and significant developments have taken place in the domain of elegy in European countries as reflected in the elegies of Rilke and Celan and Milosz. However, those developments lie outside my immediate focus of interest. The elegy like any other poetic genre bears the imprint of the historical and cultural location that it inhabits and the nexus of circumstances that breeds it. Elegies written in India or China or Japan or Sri Lanka display certain rhetorical conventions and representational strategies that speak to the distinctiveness of the given cultures that nurture them. I wish to examine, in subsequent columns, Asian elegies with a view to demonstrating their characteristic cultural visages. A comparative study of elegies can yield interesting insights into the discourse of elegy as well as the discourse of cultural-textual production.

(to be continued)



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