Desmond Egan Poet Artistic Director

Thoughts on The Elegy and on Desmond Egan Poetry

by Giuseppe Serpillo

Giuseppe Serpillo examines Desmond Egan's Elegies.

The elegiac common in Irish poetry, has encouraged a poetry of memory, often sorrowful, sometimes nostalgic, and in any case meditative. In individual poems like Egan's "Eugene Watters is Dead", "The Fly in the Tower" or "Good-bye Old Fiat" for example what will appeal to the reader in the first place will be a pervasive feeling of the frailty of all creatures, including those which we mistakenly take for inanimate objects. Then surely this
is the nature and effect of elegy:the celebration of an element
which absence has revealed. (1)

We almost automatically associate the elegy with feelings of sadness, melancholy and sorrow, and with the subjective response to some distressing or unhappy event which has left a lasting mark on a sensitive individual (2).

The etymology of the word - elegeia comes from elegos, which means "a song of lamentation with a flute accompaniment" - seems to confirm that such an interpretation is very old and dates from pre-classical times. However, the purely subjective lyric did not exist in the classical world: a whole series of topoi and formal conventions required that the poet's emotion should be filtered by the loco of rhetorical tradition: the rejection of war, the praise of peace, the pains of love, the faithful or faithless girl. Latin elegy, which inspired so much of the genre produced in western literature, was not always immersed in the shade of individual grief: the great Latin elegiac poets - Catullus, Propertius and Ovid in particular could joke, be satirical, insert some narrative within the one poem, which was still given the name of elegy.

In fact, when a Latin writer referred to an elegy, he generally had a metrical pattern in mind rather than a mood. There is an aspect of the elegy, however, which has always made it distinctive: its strong reliance on memory. Elegy is in the first place the poetry of memory. Invocations to the Muses, made by both Greek and Latin poets, were particularly appropriate in this case, as the Muses were the goddesses of memory. It is this peculiarity of the elegy, its dependence on memory, which may account, at least partially, for the great number of elegies produced in Ireland in the past few centuries and for the shade of melancholy which cuts across so much of its poetry, both in Gaelic and English. On the one hand, the Irish have been forced for historical reasons to look back on the past more often than anybody else; on the other hand, they have had to come to terms with centuries of Celtic civilisation, either revisiting it in translations, or studying and reviving it in its linguistic and cultural aspects, especially through poets and scholars like Desmond Egan, Michael Hartnett, Seamus Heaney, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill.

The "backward look" has encouraged a poetry of memory, often sorrowful, sometimes nostalgic, and in any case meditative. The melancholy mood which is peculiar to so much Celtic poetry — from the early lyrics of the VII century to the aisling of the Gaelic poets of the XVIII century — has been taken over and even magnified through the effect of contemplation.Of course there can be no poetry, no literature, without memory; but the elegy requires a conscious effort at recalling and the past has a direct influence on anything one may wish to develop from it. Whether you wish to stick to the past, connect it with the present, or use it to question the future, you will be bound to follow that first impulse which came from your memory.This is not the place to examine those aspects of Bardic poetry which make one think of it as elegiac; however, I would not say that the peculiarly melancholy mood of so much Celtic poetry could be rightly defined elegiac, as the very function of poetry in that society encouraged subtle variations on a set list of themes within strongly codified metrical patterns and with a choice of rhetorical devices.(3)

For over four hundred years there was no real evolution either in the choice of subjects and themes or in the language used in Bardic poetry. It is only when the Bards found themselves without any social, political and functional support, with nobody around them able to appreciate their skill as "verse makers" and interpreters of a tradition that something like an elegy could be produced, for then for the first time the poet's emotional response was allowed to be, at least partially, his own.(4)However, there is a profound difference between the kind of elegy produced in the 17th and 18th centuries and that written by contemporary Irish poets, mainly because the function of poetry in modern times has changed, as has that of the poet. In the "poetry of the dispossessed" of those centuries, the elegy or the elegiac mood often resulted from a feeling of dismay, sometimes mixed with rage, nostalgia or sarcasm.

It originated from the search for stable landmarks by which to confront a universe suddenly gone unreliable: it was fully focussed on the past with very little regard for a future, which, at its best, could do little more than reproduce the traditional social order.The contemporary Irish poet, instead, generally looks back on the past and works on it, rather than just contemplates it. Through memory, individual feelings are allowed to merge into a shared response, and for this reason the elegy can become a "quasi-liturgical" form through which individual and collective memory can be reconciled and the past finally accepted. That affords the only guarantee that the present itself will be understood, and a wider perspective on the future gained: you can look at the world when you have looked deeply into yourself; you can understand and accept the world once you have understood and accepted yourself.Undoubtedly there is a danger (and it has certainly left a mark on weaker personalities): poetry based on memory and the contemplation of the legacy of an utterly lost civilisation may produce a languorous rather than elegiac response, an exhausted and ineffectual "dreaminess." Yeats himself did not escape this danger, especially in his early poetry:

Edain came out of Midhir's hill, and lay
Beside young Aengus in his tower of glass,
Where time is drowned in odour-laden winds
And Druid moons, and murmuring of boughs (The Harp of Aengus (CP, 471)

Contemporary Irish poetry, on the other hand, combines the subjective dimension, the "expressive" or "emotive" function of the language,(6) with the choral, liturgical and dramatic function which were originally assigned to poetry, and largely preserved in the literature of ancient Greece. It is this collective orientation that gives back to the elegy that enormous range of communicative possibilities which has been greatly reduced after the glorious Roman season. A few lines from what is left of Callinos' or Tyrtaeus' elegies (7) offer a different perspective on what was expected of an elegy in Greece in the sevent century BC:

Until when will the young
be inert? And when will their spirit
get strong?
It is a shame to sit down
as if we were in peace;
all is in the grip of war
and it is as you fall
that your last spear must be thrown. Beautiful it is indeed
for the brave to die among the first, fighting
for his fatherland. — Tyrtaeus

There is rage in these lines which we do not usually associate with the elegy: they spur to action, are given a choral function, come from the same set of shared cultural values which gave birth to the great tragedies of the 5th century BC:

Fate cannot be avoided
[...] man thinks he can find a shelter
in his home,
yet it is just there he will meet
his appointment with death. Callinosit is a mean life which the flight
from one's native town and fertile fields
will bring about:
begging with one's dear mother and aged father,
wandering about with one's small children
and young wife!
Everywhere a burden,
bent by need
and hateful poverty. Tyrtaeus

Egan, Heaney, Kinsella, Montague, to name a few contemporary Irish poets who have written elegies, have been able to exploit the gifts of memory without yielding to its morbid temptations: dreaminess, nostalgia, heart-rending melancholy. How has this been possible? Mainly for two reasons: firstly, a renewed awareness of the classics: they have revisited them - often in their original language - and from them they have learnt that detachment which has nothing to do with indifference, but rather comes from a perception of their social and historical function as a mouthpiece of their culture and of their responsibility to the linguistic and rhetorical codes, which are as much the masters as the slaves of feelings and thought; secondly, and probably as a consequence of the first point, their refusal to make the elegy a vehicle of a single feeling or attitude. Their elegies are a phantasmagoria of different moods, ranging from the satiric to the mournful, from the private to the public, from meditative to declamatory. Beside the short lyric piece, Irish poets are increasingly producing sequences or sequels of poems connected to one another by one emotional or discursive thread, or both, which is not very different from what the Roman elegists of the first century BC were doing. Each poet will make different use of the wo types of elegy, of course, but in general a sequence will convey something of the ritual, while the short piece will concentrate more on the individual respnse, even though bundaries cannot be so clearly cut: the subjective outlook and the communal expectations can merge in a way that is impossible to disentangle. In individual poems like Egan's "Eugene Watters is Dead", "The Fly in the Tower" or "Good-bye Old Fiat" for example (8) what will appeal to the reader in the first place will be a pervasive feeling of the frailty of all living creatures, including those which we mistakenly take for inanimate objects:

somehow we presume our friends will survive
the surest anchor in our shaky universe
and so against flesh and bones was it with Eurgene
how cold such a spirit so free of his body
crazily generous innocent of bourgie values
so honestly himself so necessary to have around
as everything youthful is die
who seemed to have no truck with death?

Desmond Egan Elegies.
© 1995 Newbridge, Ireland: The Goldsmith Press Ltd. (Reprinted from KINGFISHERS: Giuseppe Serpillo- Essays on Irish and English Poetry ©The Goldsmith Press, 2001)

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