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This report is taken from PN Review 149, Volume 29 Number 3, January - February 2003.

Acquainted with Grief Lawrence Sail

Over the last year the word associated by Isaiah with 'a man of sorrows' has been widely used in contexts of public mourning as well as private loss. 'Grief': clenched, terse, almost gruff, the sound of the word half stifles what it expresses. It carries the sense of hurt and damage, the weight of its Latin origin. Like its German equivalent 'Gram', it retains a rough edge, in contrast with the mellifluous French, Italian and Spanish - douleur, dolore, dolor - whose vowels seem as near to balm as to pain. In any language, grief can outflank the social and ritual mechanisms designed both to articulate and dissolve it. Raw, without compromise, unleavened, it is stasis, with the abyss opened: perhaps that is something of what Dr Johnson meant when he remarked to Mrs Thrale in April 1781 that 'grief is a species of idleness'. Only rarely does grief induce the heightened awareness of the protagonist in Robert Graves's 'Lost Love': 'His eyes are quickened so with grief, / He can watch a grass or leaf / Every instant grow.' More often the best that can be hoped is an empathetic understanding, of the kind present in the opening lines of Blake's 'On Another's Sorrow':

Can I see another's woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another's grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

By the end of the poem, that capacity for fellow-suffering, has been explicitly ...


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