On poems of lament, including verses from the Old Testament and works by Tennyson, Shelley, & others
In this lecture of July 13, 1969, as he discussed elegies—poems of mourning—spanning the centuries, Eli Siegel showed richly what Aesthetic Realism explains: a large reason for saying the world can be liked is that even a sad or painful situation can be described beautifully. “The most cheerful fact in man’s history,” he began,
is that the presentation of sadness in art, the drama, poetry, could please people, and this meant that grief was closer to happiness than people surmised. There are quite a few people listening with satisfaction to music that is sad, and also, tragedy has been enjoyed. The meaning of this is the most hopeful thing in the world.
Aesthetic Realism shows that art has the resolution to the questions of our lives, because in it, the opposites which can confuse us are made one. “Poetry,” Mr. Siegel said, “is a great gathering of illustrations that grief with form can please, and music is, too.” Explaining that the musical form expressing mourning—the requiem—was never more popular, he spoke of Verdi, Mozart, and Berlioz as composers whose requiems are loved, and also of how something like a requiem can be part of a longer musical composition, as in works of Bach and Chopin.
“One thing that has been in the poetry of the world has been lamentation,” he said , and he read from the Bible “a great instance of sadness that can be enjoyed”: “David’s lamentation over Jonathan and Saul,” from the Second Book of Samuel. “The Hebrew sounds strong, massive, angry,” he said. “That is important, because in grief, there is anger.” It begins:
And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and over Jonathan his son:
(Also he bade them teach the children of Judah the use of the bow: behold, it is written in the book of Ja sher)
“This is something that has puzzled the commentators,” noted Mr. Siegel—“there’s a sort of let-down.” He explained that this goes from something mighty in the first sentence, to something more ordinary in the second: “(Also he bade them teach the children of Judah the use of the bow).” “That often happens,” he continued. “There are epitaphs that say: ‘This little child lies here. / When will I see you, my dear? / You were so good in arithmetic.’ —Ordinary things are included.”
He read these musical lines, the first of which, he said, has something that often accompanies grief—a person telling the physical world what to do:
Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither lelt there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: . . .
Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. . . .
“Well,” said Mr Siegel, “that is a great part of the Bible, and within this greatness. . . the mood changes.” We saw, for instance, that this chapter has grief, tenderness, sarcasm, love, and more. “In elegies,” he said, “there are all kinds of twirls, mutations, transformations.”
People in the class were very moved as Eli Siegel then read this same passage in Yiddish, saying “it is a mighty thing [and] musical. The Yiddish takes on dignity.” I loved hearing these words read with such sweetness and sincerity in a language I often heard as a child, and whose beauty I did not value. This is verse 19, which he said “is one of the few places where the [Bible] gets somewhat aesthetic”:
The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!
Die sheinheit oi Isroyel, iz oif deine hoiche erter der schluhgen gevohren: oi, vi zenen die giboirim gefallen!
I compared the Yiddish to the Hebrew,” said Mr. Siegel, and he explained that while in the Hebrew, the anger came through more, “the Yiddish wanted to tremble and get to the shaking intimacy of love.” He noted that grief is accompanied by other emotions, including anger, and he said this, which is so surprising, and which everyone who has felt grief should be able to hear: “The reconciliation of grief and anger does make for hope, and hope, when truly seen, makes for rest.”
I was thrilled by this and wanted to understand it better. In the discussion following the lecture, Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss asked me if I thought grief and anger are different. She explained that anger is thrusting, while grief seems to sink. “For grief and anger to be reconciled,” she asked, “would there be a certain oneness of thrust and retreat, force and sinking?” “Yes,” I said. Thinking about this has me understand better what I felt when each of my parents died. I am boundlessly grateful to Aesthetic Realism for teaching me, at those important times and now, how to see the opposites in my mother and father, in myself, and in the world in a way that makes me proud—and a large way is through the study of poetry. Aesthetic Realism teaches that the oneness of opposites we are looking for is in every beautiful poetic line; seeing it makes for deep composure and hope.
“There are all kinds of mournful tones, expressions, words in the grief of man,” continued Mr. Siegel. “Nearly every newspaper has words from a family telling of one who has died. There is feeling, but most often the words are not grand.” He then read the “Exequy on His Wife,” by Bishop Henry King, who lived from 1592-1669, which does have grandeur, and which he said “hasn’t been superseded as a poem of mourning by a husband.” In its short couplets, it has the oneness of thrust and sinking Ellen Reiss described. Two famous lines have both strength and sadness. I include these, and the two that follow:
Stay for me there: I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay:
I am already on the way. . .
“This is music,” said Mr. Siegel. “The drum and the violin meet. There’s a military musical manner. [This strength] has to be,” he continued, “because sincerity is looked for more than ever; the strength makes the sadness sincere. That is one of the messages of the requiem in music and the elegy in poetry.”
We heard elegies of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Some are great, including “Lycidas,” the 1637 poem by John Milton, mourning his friend, and “Thyrsis,” by Matthew Arnold, which Mr. Siegel said had “a high point in Victorian music.” Others were not as great, such as the anonymous 1676 Epitaph of Nathaniel Bacon, who led a revolt against the cruel Governor of Virginia. “This is really aggravatingly, vexingly so close to poetry,” commented Mr. Siegel, and pointing to opposites that have to be one, both in our feelings at a time of sorrow, and in a successful poem, he explained, “The thing amiss with this is the love for slowness. The gravity of the couplet is here, but not the hop, skip, and jump.”
Of the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson which he read next: “This is grief with drums and pomp and all the apparatus of a nation showing its power”—“Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington,” who was seen as the greatest British warrior of the time—the man who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. It begins:
Bury the Great Duke
With an empire’s lamentation,
Let us bury the Great Duke
To the noise of the mourning of a mighty nation. . .
Referring to the fact that Tennyson was Poet Laureate of England—official poet of the court—Mr. Siegel said humorously:
I’m not sure how much Tennyson really cared for the Duke. He’s doing a very good job—but it is a job. The Queen expected something. This is not reprehensible, [but] it is an example of some of the difficulties of official mourning, and requiem by request.
“Then,” he said, “there is the requiem which is so utter, it brims over the edges of the world”—Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”—about Abraham Lincoln, which he called the greatest in English, and he read from a poem he said was among its rivals, and “the most diverse elegy in the world”—“Adonais,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, about the poet John Keats, of whom, he said, very few people had heard when he died in 1821. Here, there is complaint—“Why weren’t the forces of the world more careful?” I was stirred to my center by the sweeping music of this poem, and the way Mr. Siegel read and spoke of it. The second stanza begins with anger and grief as one thing:
Where wert thou, mighty Mother, when he lay,
When thy Son lay, pierced by the shaft which flies
In darkness? Where was lorn Urania
When Adonais died? With veilèd eyes,
’Mid listening Echoes, in her Paradise
“This is Shelley at his very best,” said Mr. Siegel. Speaking technically about the music in the phrase: “where was lorn Urania / When Adonais died?”—he said, “We have the suggestive power of syllables. The ‘n’ sound, which is loved by the violin, is here.” And with great respect for Shelley, who saw the large value of Keats early, Mr. Siegel said:
The claim he makes for Keats’ immortality could have been laughed at . . . but [he] was right. Keats is immortal. [This] summer, there will be talk of [him] in all the central universities of these states. Shelley took a long chance, but he was right.
“The point,” he said, concluding this gorgeous lecture,
is to associate music with sadness in such a way that the world looks somewhat better—this is the meaning of tragedy as beauty. . . .It goes on, because the requiem was never more popular. . . .There is a reason for it, because people are still trying to be faithful to the world which, as world, loves and retains its mystery.
Hearing this lecture was a high point in my life. Mr. Siegel showed, with utter, beautiful conviction, that the world can be liked with all the facts present. This is the greatest cause for joy and hope there is, and every person in the world should know it, now!
Learn more about how Aesthetic Realism sees the great meaning of poetry for our lives through this essay I love: Eli Siegel’s “The Immediate Need for Poetry.”