Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Double Sorrow: Proleptic Elegy and the End of Arcadianism in 1930s Britain

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Double Sorrow: Proleptic Elegy and the End of Arcadianism in 1930s Britain

Article excerpt

        Yes, we are going to suffer, now; the sky
           Throbs like a feverish forehead; pain is real;
           The groping searchlights suddenly reveal
           The little natures that will make us cry,

           Who never quite believed they could exist,
           Not where we were. They take us by surprise
           Like ugly long-forgotten memories ...
           --W. H. Auden, "In Time of War," 1938 (English Auden 256)

        Hands of the longed, withheld tomorrow
           Fold on the hands of yesterday
           In double sorrow.
                           --Stephen Spender, "The Separation," 1939

For countless citizens in Britain in the late 1930s, the looming confrontation with Hitler produced an uneasy sense of deja vu. Premonitions of sorrow commingled with memories of the grief endured in the Great War. Faces were "lit with conscience past or future / Of men gone," eyes "filled with the tears of twenty-four years" (Hendry). (1) At Armistice Day services and military exercises, Britons watched "those who [were] about to die" try out their paces alongside the ghosts of Gallipoli and Flanders (MacNeice 39). (2) Coming to terms with this prospect of"double sorrow" was a great psychological and linguistic challenge, as poets and politicians struggled to enroll words of consolation for a second round of suffering. I would like to propose a term for the texts that voice this Janus-faced perspective on grief and for the wider cultural syndrome of which they were a part. I define proleptic elegy as consolatory writing produced in anticipation of sorrow, where the expected loss is of a familiar kind. Its occasion is the need for "psychological rearmament" in the face of a threat, its opening strategy the pragmatic one of marshaling resources already known to be useful in the work of mourning. It records and responds imaginatively to "anticipatory grief" (Woodward 88). (3) The commingling of remembered and anticipated sorrow is hardly unique to this period (indeed, Jacques Derrida has located a measure of proleptic grieving at the heart of all human friendship (4)), but there is evidence to suggest that it was especially prevalent in Britain during the late 1930s. Those who had fought in the trenches, or who had loved and lost those who had, greatly feared "the repetition of salutes" (Skelton 185). (5) For them, the prospect of enduring the sorrow of war again so soon produced both intense anxiety and what Fredric Jameson, discussing the roots of the utopian impulse, has called a "glacial perspective" (122) on consolatory narratives: a cold distance enabling them to weigh both their validity and their efficacy. It put extraordinary pressure on the hearts, the minds, and the language of Britons, pressure so great that many familiar consolatory strategies could not withstand it.

The works from which I derive my generalizations are written by men too young to fight in the Great War but whose fathers and older brothers and friends died in the trenches. They include also works by women, of a range of ages, who lost sons, loves, brothers, and husbands in that conflict. Though I shall derive the defining characteristics, in the first instance, from poetry, I shall extend the category of "proleptic elegy" to fiction and, eventually, to political polemic.

The texts I shall consider are fascinating in themselves, but they also contribute to our understanding of modern elegy in general. It has become a truism about modern elegy that it is typically "antielegy": it expresses a "refusal to mourn" (6) or rejects what Freud called the therapeutic "work of mourning" ("Mourning" 245). Because it cannot accept traditional religious and ethical certainties, it disowns "the ... propensity of the [elegiac] genre to translate grief into consolation" (Zeiger 15). (7) It rejects the valuation of mourning that would see "the obliteration of the dead by the socioeconomic laws of exchange, equivalence, and progress . …

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