A couple of weeks ago I ordered the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets book Poems of Mourning. The collection features myriad poets and their interpretation of the epitaph, requiem, and lament. All are about loss and many are about death, says editor Peter Washington in the book’s foreword.
Many cultures identify mourning as the very source of poetry and music, what Elizabeth Bishop calls the art of losing. – Peter Washington
The art of mourning poetry has been in existence for centuries. The genre of elegy is so robust that there are subgenera as well, such as the child elegy, the elegy for the young dead woman, and the elegy for the beloved family pet. All such types – and more – are included in the Poems of Mourning collection.
The Gloom of the Churchyard as Fodder for Elegy
Although death itself is certainly subject enough to provoke a poem, it was the churchyard that inspired Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” – the ‘poem of poems’ when it comes to elegies, says Thomas Laqueur in The Work of the Dead. The poem “remained resonant for at least two centuries” after it was originally published in 1751, in part because like other elegies, “it taught English people how to feel and speak about churchyards” (Ibid). They became enamored with the “gloom of the churchyard,” as so described by these “graveyard poets” who both “evoked and encouraged” such macabre sentiments. Laqueur argues that the English who shunned the advent of the cemetery in the early nineteenth century, which became the secular place of burial, in part did so because of their attachment to the dreary aura of the churchyard they had come to know intimately through these elegiac poems.
Anne Bradstreet: Matriarch of the Child Elegy
Even before Gray penned his ‘poem of poems,’ another form of elegiac form took hold, a form that did not devote its attention to the sentiments of the churchyard. The Child Elegy is a form of poetry that laments the loss of a child, often a very young child and very often an infant. It was a style of poem reserved for women, as women were viewed as somewhat incapable poets, and were expected to absorb the majority of the responsibility when it came to mourning outwardly. Anne Bradstreet reclaimed the genre and made it a profoundly popular and admired one. Even men would come to write child elegies.
You can read her elegy that mourns her three year old grandchild here.
*N.B. I spent one of my spring quarters during university studying Child Elegies, informally known as Dead Baby Poems, for my American Poetry Class. The link above will you take you to the wordpress site that I used to showcase my final project, a curation of child elegies.
The Young Dead Woman and Her Lovely Shroud
The young dead woman – immortalized by Poe – is also a popular subject for elegiac poems, and she is praised as often as the shroud she wears. “One of the Dead” by Christina Rossetti, “To Praise a Dead Woman” by Osip Mandelstam, “A Young Dead Woman” by José-Maria de Heredia, and “Needles have stitched a death shroud” by Abu Al-Ala Al-Ma’Arri are all such examples of these poems, included in Poems of Mourning.
Our Dearly Departed Animal Friends
Poems mourning beloved pets should come as no surprise, as the Victorians were known to take post-mortem photographs of their dogs and cats, often surrounding them as they would their own children. “Praise of a Collie” by Norman MacCaig, an excerpt from the Odyssey, “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” by Thomas Gray, among others, lamenting the loss of pet monkeys and partridges, can all be found in Poems of Mourning.
On the Writing of Elegies
Writing elegies is very cathartic, whether for someone you know or someone figurative, imagined. I have done both. For the latter, I often find that sticking to a strict rhyme scheme or meter helps these poems come to life.
- Laqueur, Thomas. The Work of the Dead. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015. Print.
- Washington, Peter, ed. Poems of Mourning. New York: Knopf, 1998. Print.