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literature

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Elegy  
 
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Thomas Gray

Milton, and most elegiac poets, could make this transition; Thomas Gray, writing about one hundred years after Milton, could not. In his most famous poem, "Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard," Gray calls attention to his separation from the sphere of marriage and familial ties by portraying himself as a solitary observer.

Instead of mourning a man, Gray mourns a community, one from which he is cut off by inclination, education, and class. The life of the village is a life that Gray could never and would never live. He ends the poem with a description of his own grave, in which he stresses both his loneliness, in opposition to the closely knit rural community, and his anxiety about God's judgment, in opposition to the peace of the villagers who, he suggests, never had a chance to sin.

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Gray had already written about these issues in "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West," a poem that was not published until after Gray's death. Richard West was a close friend, and perhaps lover, of Gray's who died suddenly when the two men were in their mid-twenties.

The sonnet can be read as a passage from an elegy: It contains only the ending, the search for consolation. Gray complains of his inability to find consolation where elegiac poets usually find it--in the cycles of nature and, by analogy, in the thought of offspring. The poem employs images of rebirth and regeneration in order to emphasize the poet's separation from these phenomena. Gray says that his attempts to join the natural cycle are unsuccessful.

For the typical elegiac movement from natural to human (re)birth, Gray substitutes a contemplation of nature in which the poet is an outsider, which changes to a situation in which the propagation of the race is paralleled by Gray's mourning. His lament is his only child.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

The most famous elegy of the nineteenth century is Alfred Tennyson's book-length In Memoriam, written about his friend Arthur Hallam, who died when Tennyson was 24. In this poem, Tennyson moves from profound grief and an explicit rejection of consolation to a uniquely Victorian theological--philosophical excursus and, finally, to the resolution provided by marriage.

It is significant, however, that the marriage at the end of the poem is not Tennyson's but his sister's. Tennyson himself did not marry until 1850, almost seventeen years after Hallam's death.

The characteristic quality of In Memoriam is excess; the length of the poem may itself be considered excessive, but what appears most excessive is Tennyson's emotion. The emotion may be perceived as excessive because In Memoriam was published at the very beginning of the existence of homosexuality as a fact that could not totally be ignored.

Many of the early reviews of and letters about the poem reveal a certain uneasiness with the amount of affection Tennyson lavished on Hallam's memory. It was becoming increasingly difficult to give men who declared strong emotional attachments for other men the benefit of the doubt. Tennyson himself may well have been aware of this problem since he published In Memoriam anonymously in the year of his marriage.

The emergence in the second half of the nineteenth century of the homosexual as a recognizable category of person meant that fewer elegies like In Memoriam or "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West" were written or, at least, published. Nevertheless, some writers continued to use elegiac elements to express homoerotic sentiments.

Gerard Manley Hopkins and A. E. Housman

Poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and A. E. Housman took advantage of the idea that love for another man can be expressed only after the object of love is dead to write poems that celebrate the beauty of dead boys and men. In addition to using death in this way, the English poets separated themselves, at least in their poetry, from their own homoeroticism by mourning men of a different class.

Hopkins's "Felix Randal" and Housman's A Shropshire Lad concern rural men whom the poets observe from a distance that is both social and spatial. In this, as in much else, they owe a great deal to Gray, in particular to his "Elegy" and also to his "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," in which the distance is spatial and temporal rather than social.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman wrote similar poetry, most notably in the "Drum Taps" section of Leaves of Grass (Whitman, of course, also celebrated living boys and men). Military conflict provides a place in which homoeroticism is expected, as Whitman found in the Civil War.

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