THE ELEGY HAS A HISTORY going back almost as far as poetry itself. Though it has come to mean a lyrical piece in which the writer contemplates someone’s death, the Greek term elegeia refers to form, not subject matter. According to The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, it wasn’t until John Donne’s An Anatomy of the World, written in 1611, that “the connection between death and e[legy] was made more clear.”
In her new book, Dying Modern: A Meditation on Elegy, Diana Fuss traces not this prehistory, but the forms elegy has taken over the last 200 years or so. Dying Modern is broken into three distinct parts, each dealing with a different type of modern elegy: poems using last words of people before their deaths, “corpse poems,” and morning poems or aubades. All of these, Fuss argues, are forms obsessed with the anxiety of separation; she focuses on “the dying voice, the reviving voice, and the surviving voice” throughout all three. Along the way, she touches on the poetry of Tennyson, Thom Gunn, Paul Monette, Anne Sexton, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, and others, in order to provide examples of works within each of these categories.
Some of the more thrilling portions of Dying Modern are those in which Fuss gives attention to the historical and social influences that led to the version of elegiac poetry we know today. In her introduction, she suggests that, in the early modern period, death was a common point of discussion in European society. Yet, with the diminishing influence of the Christian Church upon people’s beliefs over time, the concept of death, once generally accepted as that which merely facilitates one’s passage to heaven or hell, became far more nebulous. At this point, Fuss writes, “death became so terrifying that it could no longer be articulated” — except, it seems, in poetry. Poets specifically attempted to comprehend the unknowable through what Fuss calls “fictitious utterance.” As Rilke states in the first of his Duino Elegies (via Stephen Mitchell):
Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas,
I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul,
knowing about you.
Fuss’s first concern is with the poetic use of last words before death. The credence given to last words, she tells us, was one aspect of the larger Christian notion of a pious or “good” death: “In a good death, the dying offer proof of salvation through words of contrition, confession, conversion, faith, forgiveness, wisdom, or grace.” In time, this religious ritual became a literary device. “If poets are repeatedly drawn to the deathbed,” Fuss writes, “it may well be because the promise of an all-seeing ‘dying eye’ conveys precisely the kind of privileged vantage point that poets themselves strive to attach in their writing.” (Ironically, such words have become harder and harder to hear in the flesh, as Fuss explains: “Dying words of any kind are, in fact, hard to find in an age when newly discovered narcotics such as morphine, chloroform, and ether made speech itself unlikely in one’s dying days.”)
Fuss won my trust quite early in Dying Modern, with her discussion of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Last Words” (1881):
And when, remembering me, you come some day
And stand there, speak no praise, but only say,
“How she loved us! ’Twas that which made her dear!”
Those are the words that I shall joy to hear.
Fuss notes Jackson’s “boastful” and “presumptuous” tone, explaining that the deathbed provided women the space and liberty in which “to finally speak their minds.” Such an observation provoked in me a sensation of joy mingled with horror: the idea that a 19th-century woman would recognize and claim such an opportunity is rousing, yet of course she has to die in order to be able to do it (and then only if the drugs haven’t altered her mind too much). Still, only a particularly complex and sympathetic mind would find such a point valuable enough to notice and give page space.
Other writers of the same era fare less well. Directly following her reading of Jackson’s poem, Fuss delves into Lydia Sigourney’s cringe-worthy “Last Words of an Indian Chief”:
Hear my last bidding, friends! Lay not my bones
Near any white man’s bones. Let not his hand
Touch my clay pillow, nor his hateful voice
Sing burial-hymns for me.
While recognizing the validity of the chief’s anger toward his oppressors, Sigourney’s poem remains completely oblivious to its own act of oppression. “To express her strong opposition to the violent appropriation of the unnamed Senecan chief’s land,” Fuss writes, “Sigourney ironically finds herself occupying his voice, his thoughts, and indeed his very interiority. Imagining the proud ‘pagan’ chief’s indignity at being memorialized by a white burial hymn, Sigourney’s lyric ventriloquism paradoxically constitutes precisely such a tribute.” This “lyric ventriloquism” of a subjugated race, however radical in its time, is nonetheless disturbing, and Fuss breaks it down with intelligence. She turns next to last word poems like Donald Hall’s “Last Days” and Paul Monette’s “No Goodbyes,” noting that modern treatments for illnesses like cancer and AIDS often lead to a prolonged decline, and thus “provide the physical conditions necessary for last words; both are gradual and often fatal diseases, in which the dying might remain fully cognizant to the end.” At the end of the chapter, Fuss returns to the notion of the violence of ventriloquism; in response to Tom Clark’s poem, “The Last Words of Hart Crane as He Becomes One with the Gulf,” she writes, “Putting words into a dead man’s mouth […] can be viewed as not merely a hostile act but a homicidal one, killing off the dead all over again by refusing to let them speak.”
Dying Modern’s second chapter, “Reviving … Corpses,” is entirely devoted to such poems, specifically those that ventriloquize fictitious dead persons, which Fuss terms “corpse poems.” “In response to the social decline of death and the cultural erasure of the human cadaver,” she claims, “poets began reviving the dead through the vitalizing properties of speech.” The “corpse poem” genre, in other words, arises in reaction to the disappearance of the corpse from public life. “[This shift] from the corpse as the soul’s temporary abode to the corpse as pure waste matter, can be attributed to numerous historical factors,” Fuss remarks, “including […] a closer association of corpses with disease.” No longer was the dead body thought of as a vessel that had recently held a holy thing (think of The Dream of the Rood: “The body grew cold, fair house of the spirit”); now it was a toxic object that could contaminate and, in turn, destroy the living. This, of course, is in the cases where a corpse remained at all; with the rise of mechanized warfare in the First World War, and even more so in the Second with the atom bomb and the death camps, death often left no physical remainder at all, as people began “not just dispatching the body but completely destroying it.”
It’s odd, then, that Fuss does not consider any poems by poets from the communities who suffered such atrocities in Germany, Poland, and Japan. In fact, she neglects other groups worthy of attention throughout Dying Modern, as if death were something that happened only to British and American white people. There are, by my count, only three poets of color in her book, all of whom receive very little page space. Two are included in the political portion of the second chapter: Langston Hughes (represented by his 1933 “Ballad of Lenin” — an odd choice) and Richard Wright (the powerful “Between the World and Me”); earlier on, Fuss briefly discusses Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Bury Me in a Free Land” (1858). If, according to Fuss, the function of the corpse poem “is to make dying ‘dying’ once again […] [striving] to reconstitute death, not to compensate for it,” I suppose I am interested in all the deaths that have been “reconstituted” by historically and socially disenfranchised groups. Given her sharp eye for ethical concerns and the problems inherent in the work of white poets like Sigourney who attempt to represent people of color, this omission came as a surprise.
In her third and final chapter, “Surviving … Lovers,” Fuss addresses the aubade, or “dawn song”: pieces written about lovers (usually a knight and a lady) enjoying an evening of sex followed by separation at dawn. If you are feeling uncertain about what connects the aubade with the elegy, you will likely struggle to find the value of including this chapter, interesting as it is, in Dying Modern. Fuss does make an argument for the relationship, or tries to: “Offering a place of timeless refuge, the aubade operates exactly like an elegy, allowing the separated lovers to occupy, for just a little while longer, the shared space of a lyric haven.” Fuss goes on to spend a good deal of time and space on the historical context of the aubade, drawing on Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and other texts, but the connection is tenuous. At one point, Fuss nearly contradicts herself when she states that “departing lover aubades are nothing if not ambivalent” — an affect that seems utterly at odds with the passionate, consuming emotions we associate with grief and elegy. Then there is the fact that aubades are generally written from the perspective of the man who leaves, rather than the abandoned woman who wakes to find herself alone — whose distress might, indeed, have something in common with elegiac mourning for a loved one.
Fuss’s most convincing example, and likely the inspiration for the chapter in the first place, is Elizabeth Bishop’s “Aubade and Elegy,” in which she writes about waking to discover her lover Lota de Macedo Soares comatose after she has overdosed on sedatives:
For perhaps the tenth time the tenth time the tenth time today
and still early morning I go under the crashing wave
of your death
I go under the wave the black wave of your death
No coffee can wake you no coffee can wake you no coffee
(The strikeouts are there in Bishop’s original, unfinished text.) Yet what makes Bishop’s poem so compelling is, arguably, the lack of connection between the two forms: the brilliance and horror of it lies in the fact that, in this unusual circumstance, Bishop’s dawn song is also, chillingly, an elegy.
Ultimately, Dying Modern might have been a stronger book without this final chapter, or if Fuss had managed to make a more cogent argument for its inclusion. Yet, all in all, she approaches variations on the form of elegy with such complexity and acumen, and provides much insight into the complexities of our relation to death and the enigma of our simultaneous proximity and avoidance. These are things, after all, about which it can be almost impossible to talk. To quote Rilke, once again:
that one can contain
death, the whole of death, even before
life has begun … and not refuse to go on living,