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This article is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.

'Alms for Oblivion': Elegy in English Verse David Gervais


For nigh on two centuries elegiac feeling has pervaded English poetry, not least at the present day. Yet though elegy accounts for some of our finest poems it can also expose the limitations and lacunae in them. Geoffrey Hill has observed the spell that nostalgia cast over English poetry at the start of the twentieth century (I would put it earlier) and this slant has inevitably skewed the tradition in one direction. The point of the present essay is to chart this predilection and define its consequences. I will leave specific poems until later since most of them are well-known and their beauty is not in doubt.

The issue lies not just in what elegy has contributed to English poetry but in what it has tended to exclude from it. I should note at the outset that I do not assume, as Tennyson perhaps did, that elegy necessarily entails Virgilian lacrimae rerum.1 It may not deepen our awareness of mortality as much as we suppose. In a great passage of Modern Painters, Ruskin described the gulf between Turner’s landscapes and those of the ‘the lower picturesque’, with their ‘light sensation of luxurious tragedy’. The picturesque delight in ancient ruins may be elegiac without being tragic. Tragedy confounds and stuns us, making us face the world as it is and not as we want it to be, whereas elegy often provides consolation for it. The resignation found in Virgil or King Lear is quite different ...

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