Swiss, Margo and David A. Kent, Editors.
Speaking Grief in English Literary Culture: Shakespeare to Milton.
Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2002. x+365pp. ISBN 0-8207-0330-3.
Philip Edward Phillips
Middle Tennessee State University
Phillips, Philip Edward. Review of Margo Swiss
and David A. Kent, eds, Speaking Grief in English Literary Culture: Shakespeare
to Milton. Early Modern Literary Studies 10.3 (January, 2005): 13.1-8.<URL:
Speaking Grief in English Literary Culture: Shakespeare
to Milton, edited by Margo Swiss and David A. Kent, lives up to the
consistently high standards set by the Duquesne University Press's Medieval
& Renaissance literary studies series, of which this collection is a
part. Arising from a group of papers originally presented at a special session-"Grief
Expression in Seventeenth-Century English Literary Culture"-at the
1997 MLA Annual Convention in Toronto, this collection of essays, dedicated
to Louis L. Martz, whose essay on Herbert's "The Church" appears
in the book, addresses various approaches to loss and processes of grieving
in a wide range of poetic, dramatic, and religious works of the early modern
period. The book features an Introduction by the editors, twelve essays
written by well-known and by emerging scholars in early modern studies,
including Fred B. Tromly, Robert C. Evans, Marjory E. Lange, Michael McClintock,
Louis L. Martz, John T. Shawcross, Donna L. Long, W. Scott Howard, P. G.
Stanwood, Paul Parrish, Phillip McCaffrey, Margo Swiss, as well as an Afterword
by Ralph Houlbrooke. Collectively, the essays in this volume examine the
formal literary approaches to "speaking grief" within the social,
political, and religious contexts of the period and innovatively engage
the perennial problems writers faced regarding "meaning" and "sincerity"
in the written expression of grief.
In their Introduction, Swiss and Kent examine what it
would have meant to early modern writers and readers to "speak grief"
or to "take a grief." The editors accept the distinctions between
grief as a "process" and mourning as the emotions or sorrow felt
by the griever made previously by G. W. Pigman III, whose work Grief
and English Renaissance Elegy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985) heavily
influences this collection. The examples from Macbeth and Hamlet,
cited by the editors, reinforce the position that loss requires constructive
and restorative "grief work" (3), the absence of which can lead
to the sublimation of grief. Swiss and Kent offer the example of Hamlet,
who sublimates his grief and is consequently rendered powerless, reckless,
and indecisive. Perhaps even more so than with formal elegies, the dramatization
of grief in Shakespeare's plays would have resonated with a wide range of
social and economic classes.
The essays written by Tromly and McClintock on Shakespeare
and Heywood, respectively, focus on the dramatic representation of sorrow
and consolation, and they make the point that early modern writers recognized
the cathartic effect of grieving as well as the problems associated with
the shift from experiencing grief to writing about grief to reach a form
of consolation. As Swiss and Kent observe, being "bereaved" means
being "deprived," and they appropriately reject the notion that-due
to high infant mortality rates and Christian admonishments not to indulge
in excessive grief-Early modern writers did not feel the same intensity
of loss that we might feel today. Pain and loss, indeed, were central to
the human experience then as now, although as Tromly observes, in "Grief,
Authority and Resistance to Consolation in Shakespeare," many of Shakespeare's
characters feel acutely the pain of true sorrow and recognize the need for
the "gift" of consolation, but they very often refuse it (21).
This resistance to consolation may reflect, as Swiss and Kent observe, the
influence of religious sermons and tracts during the period that urged moderation
in sorrow, as argued previously by Pigman, even as resistance to grief persisted
(8). The editors also call attention to the abandonment of the notion of
purgatory during the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent rise in literacy
and individualism as catalysts behind the preoccupation with the literary
expression of grief during the period.
- Interestingly, Swiss and Kent point to the emerging view of Jesus presented
by Protestant preachers as vir dolorum, or "man of sorrows," that
seemed to legitimize Christian grief. The belief that God grieved, supported
in three key verses (John 11:35, Luke 19:41, and Hebrews 5:7), encouraged
the faithful who felt grief themselves and provided a model whereby suffering
might lead to renewed and strengthened faith in God. Although formal expressions
of grief could provide an outlet for emotion and a source of consolation,
even moderate, religion-sanctioned mourning was ultimately powerless in the
face of death. Although grieving would not bring about a reversal of death,
grieving properly, according to the editors, could lead to the mourner's submission
to the reality of death and to God's will, all the more necessary within the
context of seventeenth-century England's struggle with plague, epidemics,
and warfare. Private grief for the loss of family members called for private
expressions of loss while public grief for the loss of countless lives lost
to the Civil Wars, for example, called for what Protestant divines would call
"godly sorrow" that might "have an efficacious effect on contemporary
political affairs" (14). This public admonition to "speak grief"
was not lost on the majority of the writers discussed in this collection,
who were doubtless influenced by the world around them.
The editors appropriately identify the elegy as the dominant
form for expressing grief during the period, and they go a step beyond to
explain why this is so. Swiss and Kent argue that the decrease in ritualized
mourning in the Church had led to elegy as an alternative means to express
grief and to memorialize the dead. What is more interesting in this collection
of essays is the attention given to the "gendering of grief" (15),
that is the attitudes taken by writers of the period toward the legitimacy
and sincerity of elegies written by men as opposed to those written by women
or elegies written from the perspective of a woman, though composed by a
man. Essays by Long, Howard, and Parrish, for example, explore these issues
and related issues in considerable depth in their close readings of the
poetry of both male and female writers. Many female authors refrained from
using tears in their verse in a conscious effort to counter negative stereotypes
perpetuated by male authors such as Robert Burton, who believe that women
are rarely subject to melancholy and generally inarticulate in the expression
of grief. In "An Collins and the Politics of Mourning," Howard
counters the prevailing sentiment of the period in her conclusion: "Rather
than recording the withdrawn, apolitical life of a nearly-anonymous, mid-seventeenth
century woman of Christian virtue, An Collins's elegies articulate both
devotion and dissent, praise and protest…" (196). In "Maternal
Elegies by Mary Carey, Lucy Hastings, Gertrude Thimelby and Alice Thornton,"
Long explores the difficulty posed by the socially-constructed limits placed
upon grief during the seventeenth century that were dependent upon who had
died and whether the mourner were male or female. Long's insightful essay
argues that, for each female author grieving the loss of a child, the elegy
provided not only "a way of telling her story of grief, of expressing
and representing her particular loss" but also a way "to grieve
not only for individual children but for their own spiritual state"
(155). While Howard and Long effectively highlight the innovation of female
elegists of the period, Tromly, McClintock, McCaffrey, and Swiss explore
male authors' concerns with female grief in the works of Shakespeare, Heywood,
Marvell, and Milton. In a thought-provoking discussion of "Consolatory
Grief in the Funeral Sermons of Donne and Taylor," Stanwood demonstrates
the unique ways that funeral sermons sought to temper praise with instruction
(198) and conclude with a collective contemplation of the divine order.
The central concern of this collection of essays, as stated
by the editors, is the "problematic nature of writing grief, its solemnity,
indeed the sacredness of the subject, [which] makes its characteristically
self-reflexive, often explicitly addressing concerns with its own legitimacy"
(17). Such, indeed, is the central concern with all literature of mourning,
such as Milton's Lycidas or Epitaphium Damonis, not treated
in this book, which are concerned with the loss of a friend as well as with
the life and responsibility of the living. Even when feelings of loss occur,
how can they be transformed into words capable of transcending the constraints
of literary form, even when that form-the elegy-arises naturally from the
deeply human feelings of loss and the accompanying rites of mourning? Shawcross
addresses this issue of sincerity in his essay, "The Transcendence
of Grief: On a Sequence by William Hammond" as do Tromly in his treatment
of Shakespeare's plays and the authenticity of consolation and Evans in
his discussion of Donne and Jonson on the question of "genuine"
expression in literary representations of grief. The collection of essays,
which begins with Shakespeare, appropriately ends with an essay on Milton,
whose own expressions of grief would have been heard only by his "fit
audience but few" after the Restoration. He was, as the editors write
in their Introduction, "an actor on the stage of seventeenth-century
history from whose harrowing drama emerges as the period's ultimate grief
text" (19). Houlbrook's Afterword, which follows Swiss's article on
Milton, provides an eloquent and insightful overview of the major themes
explored in the volume, offers a discussion of the arguments presented therein,
and poses questions naturally arising from the collection that deserve further
Speaking Grief in English Literary Culture explores
a fascinating aspect of early modern literature-its preoccupation with death
and the difficulty faced by writers seeking to express grief in their poetry,
plays, and religious works. Swiss and Kent's collection owes a considerable
debt, which is frequently acknowledged, to G. W. Pigman and Ralph Houlbrook.
While the work of Dennis Kay, Melodious Tears: The English Funeral Elegy
from Spenser to Milton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), is discussed
in the fine article by Parrish, the work of Peter M. Sacks, The English
Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore and London:
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), winner of the 1985 Christian
Gauss Award, is never mentioned in the book. Such an omission by the editors
in a collection on expressing grief in early modern England is an unfortunate
oversight. While the collection contains detailed Notes, it would benefit
considerably from the inclusion of a general bibliography of primary and
secondary sources. The editors provide an index, which is very useful in
collections such as this one, but it is rather limited in scope. Notwithstanding,
the collection as a whole builds upon previous scholarship in the field
and forges ahead in new and fruitful directions, into various genres and
disciplines. The articles are often highly specialized, but taken collectively
they paint a comprehensive view of the approaches to "speaking grief"
during the period from Shakespeare to Milton.
I would recommend this volume to specialists in early
modern English literature and culture, social historians, and students of
literary history, intellectual history, and women's studies. Speaking
Grief is a book that deserves to be on the shelf of all major research
libraries, and it is one that could profitably be included in a theme-based
graduate seminar on death and the expression of grief in early modern literature
or in a genre-based seminar on the elegy. The essays presented in this collection
present fresh insights into and approaches to the ancient traditions of
lament and consolation as reconceived and practiced in the literature of
early modern England, and they effectively examine literature of loss within
its appropriate literary, social, political, and religious context.