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. Hardcover.

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:>

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 consideration.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.


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© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).