The elegy is a poetic genre situated between personal and public spheres. The critical literature of the genre often privileges one sphere over the other, whether it be the personal work of mourning undertaken by the elegist in writing the poem, or the public and cultural work of memorialization that is fundamental to the genre. My project examines the work of five poets – Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, and Denise Riley – whose elegies require a distinct critical apparatus, one that considers the personal and the public jointly because these poets’ elegies trouble the very distinction between the two. In the ethical concerns voiced by the poets – which range from the aestheticization of death and violence to the potential profit motives (artistic, commercial) of writing elegy – as well as in the formal techniques that can either mitigate these ethical concerns or, in some cases, generate them, these elegies betray the inextricability of private and cultural modes of grief.
In order to bring disparate parts together – the personal and the private, the ethical and the aesthetic – I implement a critical methodology that uses as its central tool the notion of “linguistic affect,” which I define (slightly modifying Riley’s own definition) as “the force of language on the body,” a force made possible through language’s historically rich materiality. The scholarly turn to affect has begun to collapse distinctions between cultural networks of affect and the human bodies they influence; my analysis focuses on the lyric as one particular linguistic site in which to discern this intersection of the cultural and the somatic, attending specifically to what Mutlu Konuk Blasing refers to as the “affective materials of language”: its affectively charged sounds and rhythms, and the poetic techniques that harness these affective charges through prosody, form, and poetic convention. The ethical dilemmas conveyed in the work of these five elegists are thus symptomatic of the challenge of articulating a private grief that always speaks beyond itself.