The Penguin Book of Elegy: Poems of Memory, Mourning and Consolation by Andrew Motion & Stephen Regan (EDD) - review by Jeremy Noel-Tod

Jeremy Noel-Tod

Dead Poets Society

The Penguin Book of Elegy: Poems of Memory, Mourning and Consolation


Penguin Classics 638pp £40 order from our bookshop

Elegiac poetry deals primarily with mortality, so The Penguin Book of Elegy might be seen as the inevitable – if much-delayed – sequel to George MacBeth’s The Penguin Book of Sick Verse (1963). That was a quirky production, though, ranging from physical illness to sick jokes. This is a canonical one, which claims to be ‘the only comprehensive anthology of its kind in the English language’.

How to survey all the poetry that has ever been written about death? The editors’ introduction begins, alarmingly: ‘All poetry exists as a record of life snatched from the destructive flow of time, and so to some extent all poetry is elegiac.’ You can see their point, but doesn’t that also make any work of art – any artefact – ‘elegiac’? 

Originally a type of ancient Greek metrical couplet, the elegos came to be associated with songs of lament. In Latin, it evolved into the pastoral elegy, where shepherds mourn the deaths of mythical figures and the landscape mourns with them – a melancholic scenario that echoes through modern elegy: for example, when Linton Kwesi Johnson buries his father and laments how ‘country to town/is jus thistle an tawn’, or when Denise Riley tells her dead son that she wants to ‘shepherd you back within range’. 

The introduction soon settles into a sober overview of this tradition. One wonders, in fact, if the origin of this anthology was a lecture series: both Andrew Motion and Stephen Regan have had long careers as professors in English departments, and there is a note of please-read-for-next-week inevitability about the way one literary monument points to another (‘Hardy no doubt had In Memoriam in mind when he began to compose his own “Poems of 1912–13”’).

All of which is fine, if a little old-fashioned, and leads one to expect a neat graveyard of Great Poems, dotted with the minor, mossed-over verses that are the fun of an anthology. But the editors’ aspiration to comprehensiveness leads them to a grander claim. They have, they say, ‘brought together the best and most varied examples we can find of poems of loss and mourning written in English (and translated into English) between Classical antiquity and the present day’. If true, this claim is hardly less mind-blowing than the suggestion that all poetry is elegiac. A lifetime’s reading is implied by that parenthesis.

Of course, it’s not true – and the result is a comprehensive muddle. The cracks begin to show when the editors explain that their chronological introduction is going to be followed by poems arranged alphabetically by author. Shuffling the cards like this, they believe, ‘highlights [the] reciprocity’ of elegy through the ages, while offering ‘surprise and delight’. Personally, I’ve always found that opening an anthology at random does the trick if I feel like a surprise. So it’s hard not to feel that this abecedarian scheme is really a way to disguise the gap between ambition and reality.

We begin with A for Anonymous: first, traditional English ballads that tend toward the grave; then the filigree Middle English dream vision Pearl, on the death of a daughter; and finally the once-popular song about the baby who went ‘dahn the plug’ole’. No doubt following a medieval classic with an ‘approximation of the cockney accent’ seemed like a good academic joke at the time, but in cold print it falls flat. If this is an elegy, where are all the other popular songs of the last century about loss? Moreover, where are the anonymous Old English poems usually known as elegies due to their ubi sunt moralising (‘Alas for the bright cup, the armoured warrior’)? This mood seems to be the reason why other poems on mutability have been included, such as Ivor Gurney’s lovely ‘Cotswold Ways’ (‘brick kilns broken among fern’). But one might then also ask: where is the haiku?

It is at least refreshing, after Anonymous, to meet a poem by the contemporary poet Raymond Antrobus on his Jamaican father. The structural whiteness of most British anthologies up until the last decade or so is a stark fact. But further investigation of this collection reveals a timidly minimal effort overall in the direction of diversity, and even less in the direction of what might be called decolonisation. It feels as though an early draft of this anthology may have been revised in the light of the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement to include a thread of poems about death by racist violence. But is Langston Hughes’s short poem about a lynching, ‘Silhouette’, really an elegy rather than a polemic? Whatever the answer, it’s simply baffling that we don’t also have Gwendolyn Brooks’s devastatingly understated ‘The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till’. 

Beyond the unimaginative pigeonholing of British and American poets of colour, there is also the insular parochialism of the editors’ wider frame of reference. ‘Elegy has national characteristics,’ they tell us, but don’t expect to find out about them here. Did no Anglophone poets from South Asia or Africa ever write in the elegiac mode? Why is the only poet here from Australasia Les Murray? They wouldn’t have had to look far to find Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Beach Burial’, not to mention Hera Lindsay Bird’s ‘Keats is Dead So Fuck Me from Behind’. 

Similar questions arise when one looks for the poems in translation promised by the introduction. Excluding the Greek and Latin classics, these are mostly brief compositions by ‘mid-twentieth century European poets whose experience of war means that their work frequently combines personal with national lamentation’. It’s nul points here, however, to most major European literatures with long traditions of elegy – better luck next time, Spain, France and Italy. It’s also not clear why national suffering is seen as an exclusively European phenomenon. Where is the Arabic elegy in all its forms and evolutions? Where is the Jewish tradition of lament in the centuries between the Old Testament (extracts from which appear here) and Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’?

The kinds of poets Motion and Regan have found extra room for are other Englishmen. In Regan’s case, a former colleague at Durham University, Gareth Reeves, makes the cut with one of the many valedictions to a dead parent that became widespread in modern poetry after Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) opened the family album. In Motion’s case, he simply includes a poem by himself.

If Motion’s motivation was the ‘yearning … for poetic immortality’ that the editors attribute to Milton’s Lycidas a few pages earlier, though, the alphabetic ordering comes back to haunt him. His ‘Serenade’ serves as the muted warm-up act for Paul Muldoon’s ‘Incantata’, one of the most brilliant elegies of the last half-century. Muldoon’s virtuosity effortlessly outshines Motion’s watery uncertainty of tone, with its vacillations between matey slang (‘arse’), overwriting (‘moon-crescent’) and downright classism (a ‘ferret-faced’ blacksmith).

The Penguin Book of Elegy contains many great, good and touching poems, but – costing £40 and having been bulked up with out-of-copyright material – it also exemplifies the complacency of British literary publishing. This could have been the most profound survey of mourning song ever made. Instead, reading it is like going to the funeral of a spectacularly wealthy relative and finding you have been bequeathed a shelf of dusty classics.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter