Monday, June 1, 2009

David Baker - Elegy and Eros: Configuring Grief

Nice essay.

Elegy and Eros: Configuring Grief
by David Baker

The issue is not just that we grieve, nor when we grieve. The issue is not just why we grieve in poetry, nor how the beautiful song of poetry capitulates to or conspires with the task of weeping. These and more. I like to think of the sound of weeping, along with the sound of laughing, as among the first thoughtful articulations a human being ever made. More than growls or grunts, more than snarls or barks or howls, weeping and laughter indicate passional responses to experience, to a perception of circumstances not only in the present but in the past and—even more fascinating—the future. Nothing else cries or laughs the way we do. These two primary forms of vocalization evolve further into songs: ecstatic language, as it were, standing beside itself, speaking out of its head. It is no accident that the two fundamental modes of lyric poetry are precisely these, crying and laughing, the intonations of grief and pleasure. By this I mean, the elegy and the love poem.

I want to consider the configuration of the elegy, with two particular examples from the American nineteenth century. At hand is the problematic of Walt Whitman's great poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," I want first to remind us of the complex narrative structure of Whitman's poem for his beloved deceased, and to unpack the poem's dense sets of images, stories, locations, and most important, its figures. As I intend the term, a figure is not just a body, a human figure; and not just a trope or metaphor, a figure of speech; but also a number, a mathematical figure. Next, I will relate this poem to another central nineteenth-century American elegy, Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death." Finally I will propose a paradigm shift in our thinking, and reading, about the American elegy.

"Whitman's elegy, like his great song
of himself, is ultimately a self-elegy"

Strange things are afoot. A foot in Whitman's poetry is a different body part than in other poets' work. Whose body is before us in Whitman's lilac elegy? The literal circumstance of Whitman's great poem is the funeral procession following Abraham Lincoln's assassination and death on April 14, 1865. Good Friday indeed. Whitman's poem accompanies the death-train that slowly bore Lincoln's body from Washington, D.C., all the way to burial in Illinois. At least in its beginning, the poem abides by a conventional, ritualized manner of mourning. Surely this poem is forefather of The Waste Land, commencing as it does in April, the cruel month, and proceeding in a series of aggrieved stages, through the city, into nature, into death, toward something sounding like prayerful redemption. As Peter Sacks argues in The English Elegy, the performance of ritual—the mournful, often staid formulation of grieving—is an elegy's primary rhetorical gesture.

Whitman's lilac elegy begins just so:


When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear'd—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.

In these first sections we hear a sober, then almost quietly sobbing voice of the poem, in radical contrast to Whitman's usually hortatory and encouraging profusions. This is, remember, the ur-poer of exuberance, cheerleader for democracy, the electrically charged poet of erotic contact and corporal intelligence. But note in section 1 the restraint, the underspoken dignity, as well as the formalized introduction of the poem's primary tropes, the triple image-into-symbol or, as he says, the "trinity sure to me you bring" that accompanies the poet's imagination through the odyssey of this poem. This trinity will evolve, eventually becoming the western star, or the planet Venus, which serves as a figure for Lincoln; the fragrant, plentiful, natural emblem of lilac; and, as a stand-in for Whitman, that hermit thrush with its doleful song. The particular curse of spring's eternal rebirth here, its immeasurable irony, lies in its perpetuating mementi mori, its blooming reminders of death. That is T. S. Eliot's terror in The Waste Land, and Whitman's, who not only mourns, but "yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring [italics mine]." But why Venus, the goddess of love, in an elegy? Why lilac? Why, for that matter, Lincoln?

Section 2 sounds the poem's death knell and identifies the crisis at hand: how to face "the black murk that hides the star," how to accept that Death has taken the new democratic hero. Juxtaposed with the stasis of this seemingly insoluble problem is section 3, the "miracle" of the natural trope, a lilac growing by an old farmhouse with its human "heart-shaped" leaves and its perfume. In the odor of lilac—is there anything so sweet, so profuse? —lingers a touch of the poem's subversive power. Psychologists tell us the sense of smell is our most nostalgic sense, the one most capable of triggering memory. It is also our least articulable sense. That is, we have far fewer words to describe smell than any other sense. Another irony then: such bodily knowledge yet such intellectual stupor. But of course this is the romantic's ideal formulation.

Section 4 activates another sense, the sound of the solitary thrush's song calling from deep within natures heart, from "the swamp," a place not quite water or land, or perhaps more meaningfully for Whitman a primordial place of both water and land. This solitary singer seems a strange figure for Whitman, usually so gregarious, hungry to situate himself among others and sing "over the roofs of the world," as he says in "Song of Myself." But again, so much about the lilac elegy is atypical. Whitman is not by any means an elegiac poet. Grief, sadness, pessimism are not the keys in which he typically plays. He is so energetically urban and hopeful, so enlivened by the prospect of crowds and bodily contact. But this will be one of the central trajectories of the poem: to move away from the city into the solitary, inhuman woods, in order to find his voice and regain his poetic vocation. The song he hears—always a necessary intonation in an elegy—is "deaths outlet song," and the singer, the bird, is literally his "brother." Notice the increasing archaic formality at the end of this section. "If thou wast not granted to sing thou would'st surely die" takes its diction from Quaker idiom. Whitman's mother was a devout Quaker, we may remember.

Sections 5 and 6 find Whitman propelling his poem forward, making it move, as the train moves. Elegies rarely have momentum, preferring the mournful deportment of stasis, stillness. Here the natural images seem battle-scarred (the Civil War blue and gray of violets and debris, the "spears" of wheat and grain-"shrouds"), but also potentially healing as the world "springs back" to life. The gathered crowd of people in section 6 abide by Sacks's elegiac formula, becoming a country-wide funeral mass, listening to the poem's song, here still a "dirge." Notice at the end of this section how Whitman transplants the sprig of lilac that he broke off at the end of section 3 into the coffin of the president.

Section 7 continues the gestures of enlargement and forward motion: "With loaded arms I come, pouring for you." Echoing the dark confessions of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"—which he first published in the great 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass as "The Sun-Down Poem" (note the westward-facing gesture)—where Whitman's desire for intimacy and human-sameness finds him admitting that not "you alone" are weak or blank or susceptible to pain, here the figure of the dead hero first becomes a trope for all the dead of the war: a figure, in fact, for Death itself, "O sane and sacred death." The "you" of the poem evolves, swelling past them all, to the very thought of death: "For you and the coffins all of you O death." Then in a gesture of quiet but fertile abundance, he hastens to cover death all "over" with bouquets of roses, lilies, and as he says, "mostly" lilacs. He seeks not just to adorn the coffin but literally to bury death.

An aside about all these flowers. I mentioned earlier the immense, lush fragrance of the lilac. Why this flower, apart from its springtime significance? Imagine the body of Lincoln traveling, so slowly, for days and days across the country. Imagine the potential smell. We know that people heaped flowers on the railcar as it passed or as it stopped. They are paying tribute, but they are also covering the stench. Thus, for Whitman, the lilac provides a powerful aroma, not just a "scented ... remembrancer" but a natural air freshener, making the very air new.

Whitman slows his momentum in section 8, at this point where he begins to discover his vision of transcendence. To be reborn, first he must die, or at least descend to an underworld. He calls it "the netherward black of the night." Thus Whitman's scheme for the elegy enlarges to include an epic trope. He himself walks into a dark wood, his Virgil the star, and commences his own journey to death. This is one of my central points: not just Lincoln, but also Whitman must die in this poem. His elegy, like his great song of himself, is ultimately a self-elegy. He asks for strength and direction in section 9, "lingering" in spiritual limbo in the swamp. He listens to the thrush; he begs for it to "Sing on." Like the bird, Whitman yearns to sing; it is his natural demeanor. But of course the second crisis of the poem is that the death of Lincoln has stifled or murdered Whitman's ability to sing and to praise. Such is the point of his awful doubts in section 10:

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?

Sea-winds blown from east and west,
Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea, till there on
the prairies meeting,
These and with these and the breath of my chant,
I'll perfume the grave of him I love.

These first three questions serve to ask how Whitman himself might assume the qualities of the poem's eternal constants—the star, the lilac, the thrush. How, he asks, can he "warble," how can he shine, what shall be his perfume? Immediately nature answers. Carried on the world's winds, a breath of inspiration floats to him from around the globe. He breathes-in (spiro is Latin for "I breathe," we might recall) the breath of the world and knows now that his simple expiration will be his song. To expire exercises both of its meanings: to breathe out and to die.

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