Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Elegies in a Different Key: Tennyson's in Memoriam and Paul Monette's Love Alone

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Elegies in a Different Key: Tennyson's in Memoriam and Paul Monette's Love Alone

Article excerpt

IN HIS GROUNDBREAKING study, Poetry of Mourning: The Elegy from Hardy to Heaney, Jahan Ramazani claims that the modern elegy can be distinguished from its nineteenth-century counterpart by being anti-Victorian and anti-consolatory. "The modern elegist," he concludes, "tends ... not to override but to sustain anger, not to heal but to reopen the wounds of loss." He adds that modern elegies often include expressions of "masochism, irresolution, and irredemption" (x,2,10). Although Ramazani does not include recent AIDS elegies in his mostly comprehensive study, one would assume that his theory could be applied to them. To test this assumption, we can examine whether one of the most impressive collections of AIDS elegies, Paul Monette's Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, supports or deviates from Ramazani's model for the modern elegy. Furthermore, to judge whether Monette's elegy is anti-consolatory and anti-Victorian, we can compare and contrast it with the most influential and consolatory British elegy of the nineteen century, Tennyson's In Memoriam. Embodying the mourning work of grief, both poems were written in memory of beloved friends who held great promise and died too young: Tennyson's dearest friend Arthur Hallam, who died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage, and Monette's lover, Roger Horowitz, who died inexorably of AIDS.

As Robert Bernard Martin records in Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart, when Arthur Hallam died suddenly and unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 24 while traveling with his father in Europe, the entire Tennyson family, totally unprepared for the death, was devastated. Hallam, who was Tennyson's closest friend and confidante, was engaged to be married to Tennyson's sister, Emily. This double loss brought Tennyson to the abyss of despair. "I suffered what seemed to me to shatter all of my life so that I desired to die rather than to live" (189). Congenitally prone to melancholia, Tennyson was so overwhelmed by the death of his friend that he could not bring himself to attend the funeral (187). Searching for a method to express his grief and to reach closure--for himself and also for all of his readers who had "loved and lost"--Tennyson spent seventeen years of his life composing In Memoriam, which would ultimately be published in 1850 to great acclaim. Queen Victoria recorded that next to the Bible, In Memoriam was the inspirational work that had brought her the most comfort after she lost her consort, Prince Albert.

In contrast, Monette, who had already lost other friends to AIDS and had contracted the stigmatizing AIDS virus himself, was Roger Horowitz's lover and primary caretaker. Frantically, he watched the relentless deterioration of his lover's condition as Rog faced pneumonia, hepatitis, blindness, a battery of ineffective medical treatments, meningitis, and ultimately death. Following Rog's death, and in manic response to his own inconsolable grief, Monette wrote Love Alone. In his introduction to this collection, Monette describes his intended audience: "if these words speak to anyone they are for those who are mad with loss, to let them know they are not alone" (xi). Himself mad with loss, Monette wrote the elegies during the five months after his lover died, "one right after the other, with hardly a half-day's pause between," because "writing them quite literally kept me alive, for the only time I wasn't wailing and trembling was when I was hammering at these poems" (xii). While both Tennyson and Monette chose the elegiac form to mourn and commemorate their loved ones, Monette's description of "hammering at these poems" for five months is different both in tone and style from what Tennyson called his "short swallow-flights of song, that dip / Their wings, in tears, and skim away" (St. 48: 15-16).

Whereas Tennyson's long elegy consists of more than a hundred alternately rhymed stanzas (ABBA) that were written at many different times and places (Memoir, I, 304), Monette's elegies are unpunctuated, claustrophobically enjambed, and lack dear structural divisions. …

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