Beyond Consolation: Death, Sexuality, and the Changing Shapes of Elegy

Beyond Consolation: Death, Sexuality, and the Changing Shapes of Elegy

Beyond Consolation: Death, Sexuality, and the Changing Shapes of Elegy

Beyond Consolation: Death, Sexuality, and the Changing Shapes of Elegy

Synopsis

Using as her starting point the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Melissa F. Zeiger examines modern transformations of poetic elegy, particularly as they reflect historical changes in the politics of gender and sexuality. Although her focus is primarily on nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry, the scope of her investigation is grand: from John Milton's "Lycidas" to very recently written AIDS and breast cancer elegies. Milton epitomized the traditional use of the Orpheus myth as an illustration of the female threat to masculine poetic prowess, focused on the beleaguered Orpheus. Zeiger documents the gradual inclusion of Eurydice, from the elegies of Algernon Charles Swinburne through the work of Thomas Hardy and John Berryman, re-examining the role of Eurydice, and the feminine more generally, in poetic production. Zeiger then considers women poets who challenge the assumptions of elegies written by men, sometimes identifying themselves with Eurydice. Among these poets are H. D., Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, and Elizabeth Bishop. Zeiger concludes with a discussion of elegies for victims of current plagues, explaining how poets mourning those lost to AIDS and breast cancer rewrite elegy in ways less repressive, sacrificial, or punitive than those of the Orphean tradition. Among the poets discussed are Essex Hemphill, Thom Gunn, Mark Doty, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Marilyn Hacker.

Excerpt

During the past twenty years, elegies have been more prolifically written, intensively studied, and resourcefully theorized than poems in practically any other traditional genre. At the same time, writing in other genres has become more elegiac as writers have increasingly addressed themes of loss and mourning. Although it has proved intellectually rewarding, this broad cultural turn to elegy is painful insofar as it attests to the psychic and social threat of contemporary life- threatening diseases like AIDS and breast cancer. It is a turn that also betrays the pervasiveness of cultural melancholia at the end of a century that has repeatedly witnessed unimaginable loss of life, from World War I through the Holocaust and Hiroshima to Cambodia and Bosnia. If the resources of elegy have often been called upon, and sometimes found wanting, it is partly because elegiac occasions have been so numerous and so dire.

It is not only contemporary direct threats of mortality, however, that have stimulated interest in elegy. Elegy's high place among traditional poetic forms--it remains an object of lofty poetic ambition to some poets even in the late twentieth century--has recently prompted intensive critical reexamination of its literary history and political implications. In criticism as in twentieth-century poetry, many cultural norms of sexuality, gendered identity, cultural inheritance, and permissible response to death have been at once challenged and actively renegotiated by feminists among others. Because of its privileged poetic status, elegy has been a primary site of critical renegotiation.

I review some of the recent critical discussion in the chapters to come.

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