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This article is taken from PN Review 142, Volume 28 Number 2, November - December 2001.

Some Versions of Pathos David Gervais


A need for pathos may seem more Victorian than modern - Victorians cried more spontaneously than we do - but it is a constant element in poetry. Homer's Andromache appeals to the same instincts as Racine's Andromaque; modern poets are still inspired by Greek myths. But this, in itself, does not explain why pathos consoles us as it does or why being moved should relieve rather than disgust us. Are our emotions still trapped in pre-Nietzschean pity?

I shan't limit my illustrations to the kind of pathos that can be described as pathetic in the narrow, tearful sense of the word. The greatest moments of pathos are connected to everything in the dramas to which they belong, they do not exist in a world of their own, lit only by stage emotion. When we see the abandoned Marguerite in Faust we do not for a moment forget the pact that the hero has signed with Mephistopheles. Our perspective does not become partial, just because it is temporarily determined by pity. Nor is pathos the province only of mature writers like Virgil and Sophocles. The sense of lacrimae rerum was equally available to Keats and the young Goethe. Schubert, the most poignant of composers, was only thirty-one when he died but there is no reason to treat his pathos as mere sentimentality: Winterreise is as stern as Sophocles.

The most familiar object of pathos is a character like Ophelia in Hamlet, as ...

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