“I used to want to live / to avoid your elegy,” Robert Lowell confessed in “For John Berryman.”
The death of one poet is an extraordinary occasion for another poet. It is like the day a stonemason dies and another has to carve his headstone. Like a rough ashlar, the elegy sits waiting to be shaped into a memorial for the one who is gone. The death of a poet so great as Jack Gilbert last week pains, but also promises remembrances fitting the one who died.
Gilbert devoted most of his elegies to his wife, Michiko Nogami, but poets have forever elegized one another. We can trace the canon through the poems that poets have written to mourn their own: Henri Cole grieving Elizabeth Bishop; Bishop remembering Robert Lowell; Lowell lamenting the death of John Berryman; Berryman longing for Roethke, Jarrell, Hughes, Plath, Schwartz, and William Carlos Williams; W.H. Auden elegizing Yeats; Shelley bemoaning the loss of Keats; all the way back to Ovid mourning Orpheus.
Across the eras, through all the years, elegies have retained three features: lament, at having to confront the particular death of the subject, but also the subject of death; repetition, as a formal technique and mechanism for grieving; and the achievement of resurrection or apotheosis.
Elegies are not bashful: they foreground death, announce their sorrow, and draw others into their grief. Lament truly animates the form, as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats” illustrates.
Shelley’s elegy begins: “I weep for Adonais—he is dead!” Immediately after announcing Keats’s death and his own personal grief, Shelley invites readers into his mourning: “O, weep for Adonais! though our tears / Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!” The speaker’s solitary sorrow widens to include the audience in the lament—not only readers but poetry itself as Shelley collects the subjects of Keats’s poetry into the poem.
Lament often inaugurates elegies, but repetition organizes them. Take Elizabeth Bishop’s “North Haven,” written for Robert Lowell one year after his fatal heart attack. Although she is looking at one of Lowell’s most beloved seascapes in Maine, she resists the pathetic fallacy. Bishop does not believe that nature is shedding tears simply because she is. “The islands haven’t shifted since last summer,” she writes, and then acknowledges, “even if I like to pretend they have.”
She also recognizes that the constancy of nature is illusory: “the goldfinches are back, or others like them.” Not even nature resists change, although it does repeat itself year after year, bringing new finches and growing different flowers even though the seasons themselves seem unchanging. “Nature repeats herself,” Bishop concedes, “or almost does: / repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.”
The qualification is most chilling: “almost” is the way in which the dead are “almost” but not quite alive. That concession forces Bishop to acknowledge what she has denied until the poem’s final stanza: “You left North Haven, anchored in its rock, / afloat in mystic blue … And now—you’ve left / for good.”
It takes repetition—of the seasons and the songbirds, of the leaving and the taking leave—for Bishop to acknowledge and elegize Lowell’s death. Repetition as a formal poetic structure mimics the repeated elements of funerals, wakes, and rituals marking death. “Repeat after me,” the clergy say, and so we do. Whole liturgies dance this dance of calling and responding, so not surprisingly elegiac poems are built through the repetition of words and phrases.
Together repetition and lament lead to something more than the words on the page. Lowell is alive in the fifth stanza of Bishop’s poem: eternally chatting with us about North Haven, where he “first ‘discovered girls’” and is always having “such fun.” Lowell speaks through the stanza, living forever between the lines—a miracle that did not trouble Bishop, but which obsessed W.H. Auden.
The resurrection that is possible in poetry worried Auden, whose elegy of W. B. Yeats is one of the most remarkable ever written. “Time,” Auden noticed,
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week,
To a beautiful physique,
but “worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives.”
The poetry that survives the poet is immutable and the poem that elegizes the poet is immortal, but the poet himself is gone forever. That everything but the poet survives unsettles Auden, who seems most mournful that apotheosis requires absence.
Auden, like Bishop, considers the pathetic fallacy. He opens his elegy by observing that Yeats died in “the dead of winter,” when “all of the instruments agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day.” His real focus, however, is what we might call the poetic fallacy: the uncomfortable reality that “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.”
For thousands, the day that Yeats died was nothing more than “a day when one did something slightly unusual.” Yet those very persons will be the “vessel” of his memory. “He became his admirers,” Auden says, meaning that Yeats, like all poets, lives only in the poetry he left behind. Nowhere is that reality clearer than in the elegies poets have written for one another.
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.