Review of Dying Modern: A Meditation on Elegy by Diana Fuss

Elegy Gravestone
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Discussed in this review: Dying Modern: A Meditation on Elegy by Diana Fuss; Duke University Press, 2013, 168 pages. Buy at Duke UP and Amazon.

This is a book I have been dying to read. If you care about literature and have ever lost someone you love, you should read Dying Modern: A Meditation on Elegy.

What Is an Elegy?

Elegy Gravestone
Gravestone with Elegy Poem (Source: Van Corey, Flickr)

Diana Fuss says at the beginning of her short book (my copy is around 150 pages) that elegy is “a poetics of loss that does not so much mark the end of love as put a name to love.”

Fuss tells us that her book is not literary history but literary criticism. She discusses a selection of mostly British and American poems from the past 200 years that she feels illustrate her contention that, “dying poems have one important thing in common: all chose speech over speechlessness, utterance over silence. Insisting on giving voice to the voiceless, these elegies all imagine death or absence by offering fantastical fictions in lyric form.” This book could be enjoyed by both poetry critics and educated general readers.

We live in an age in which elegy is part of our daily lives. We recall the horrible losses of 9/11 and hear news accounts of the American death toll in Afghanistan and of the murdered in mass shootings like those at Sandy Hook. We all periodically lose friends and family members. Fuss’s book is, sadly, appropriate reading for our times.

The Ethics of Elegy

“Dying Modern” by Diana Fuss

Fuss argues that death has become so medicalized in both the process of dying and the grieving process (the bereaved are routinely prescribed anti-depressants – grief being now classed as just another disorder) that elegies make many people uncomfortable. She says some believe that to express feelings of loss in poetical form is to exploit the dead. She argues for the ethical value of elegy, “Ethics, at its heart, begins in the ability to imagine another’s suffering, making elegy of the most necessary, if perilous, of aesthetic forms.” Hospice workers, medical educators, physicians, psychologists, and those in the medical humanities should read this book, as should those who have lost loved ones to AIDS or cancer.

Fuss makes the fascinating point that elegies can be about subjects other than the loss of an individual. They can be about lost ways of life, places, or shattered dreams. She observes that elegies are often brief but comforting; as she says, “Elegies do offer their audience something, even if this something is, in many respects, precious little.”

Women Finally Getting the Last Word

In the extremely interesting chapter, “Dying Words,” about the surprisingly rich genre of poems that have to do with the last words of the dying, Fuss points out that female poets were particularly attracted to this, the last words genre of poetry. How depressing that women could only really express themselves on their dying day, and that their primary role in the 19th century was to console other people and assure them that the dying person was at peace and that heaven awaited them all.

Fuss says that many such poems by women could be exceedingly specific about how the survivors were to go about grieving, how to decorate the grave, and so forth. Fuss is quite good on fuss.

Speaking From Beyond the Grave

At the end of the chapter, “Dying Words,” Fuss prepares us for the chapter, “Reviving…Corpses” by saying, “When last words have been spoken, what exactly is left to say? Over the past two centuries, poetry’s widening interest in the figure of the speaking corpse effectively turns the lyric convention of last words into next-to-last words.” I had not realized until I read Fuss’s book that the dead are so talkative in British and American poetry.

One of the charms of Fuss’s book is that in the midst of her serious scholarly study about death-related poetry she can suddenly be quite funny writing, for instance, “Dickinson’s female dead are cadavers with serious attitude.” And writing of the popularity in the 20th century of the dead as speakers in poems, she quips, “Modernity, it turns out, is fertile ground for corpses.”

Fuss notes that in the case of Dickinson, speaking corpses tend to not so much haunt the living as to express irritation with them and to demand that they itemize for the corpses the delights of life on earth that they used to know, and which the somewhat resented living are now alone experiencing. As Fuss points out, the Dickinsonian dead can be a demanding bunch who often wish that those they loved still on earth would hurry up and die so as to keep them company in the hereafter. Others in the Dickinsonian corpse corpus seem content enough only because they don’t quite seem to grasp that they are dead. Fuss also makes the point that Dickinson’s dead are often merely querulous, whereas some of Tennyson’s express despair of epic levels and in a much more macabre fashion.

Fuss is particularly interesting on the use of the corpse poem in the 20th century, when it became less about religious consolation and more about such matters as the fate of victims of political terror and other sorts of oppression. She tells us, “Corpse poems are never freighted with the heavy loss that characterizes elegies because they are rarely elegizing anything, not even the demise of elegy itself, perceived as an anachronistic art form ill-suited to the age of genocide.”

Aubade Versus Elegy

The chapter, “Surviving…Lovers” contains a good deal of authoritative discussion of the aubade, but it needed to be tightened up. I was not clear what the connection between the aubade and the elegy actually was. The lover left behind to pine for her (usually) departed lover in the aubade is somewhat analogous to the bereaved person left behind by the person who has died. But Fuss doesn’t really make her points clear until well into the chapter, and even then I was underwhelmed by her arguments.

Missing Persons in the Book

I was surprised that Fuss did not include any mention of Christina Rossetti, A. E. Housman (the quintessential poet of loss), or Rudyard Kipling, whose poem, “My Boy Jack,” is incredibly moving. Maybe Housman is too obvious an example, or perhaps he did not write in any of the forms Fuss discusses. But Rossetti almost certainly did.

Why Read This Book?

We all encounter elegies, whether at memorial services or during periods of national trauma. This book is an erudite, beautifully written study of them. If you’re a lover of Emily Dickinson’s work or that of Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, or Richard Wilbur, you will want to read this book. If you teach literary criticism or simply love poetry, you will want to read Fuss’s book.

Superb book.