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PN Review 275
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This review is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

Cover of The Penguin Book of Elegy: Poems of Memory, Mourning, and Consolation
Jack BarronThe Penguin Book of Elegy: Poems of Memory, Mourning, and Consolation, edited by Andrew Motion and Stephen Regan (Penguin Classics) £40
On Nothing in Particular

William Empson’s poem ‘Ignorance of Death’ thinks a lot about how to think – or not think – about the end of thought. It takes us through various cultural approaches to death, from Buddhist to Christian to Communist. But in the end – that is, the end of the poem and the end of it all – we find no conclusion, only an appeal to unknowingness, couched typically in that tone of Empsonian table-talk:
Otherwise I feel very blank upon this topic,
And think that though important, and proper for anyone to bring up,
It is one that most people should be prepared to be blank upon.
There is a small and sharp difference between ‘I feel very blank’ and ‘to be blank’: the former allows the first person at least some affective response, no matter how unfeeling, with ‘very’ suggesting the possibility of degree; the latter couples our most fundamental infinitive (‘to be’) to the ultimate and un-adjectivised blankness that may constitute non-being. The lines thereby describe, with perfect contradictory force, an indefinite end – the final paradox we all must one day meet.

Although Empson’s blankness proves a particularly unyielding term with which to deal, it remains a fact that such a contradiction forms the heart of elegiac thinking: that is, the point at which words may fail is precisely where elegy starts its work. It is perhaps unsurprising that taking death – or the process of dying – as a beginning produces an infinitely rich variety of responses, and now The Penguin ...

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