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This page accompanies the exhibition of 12 elegies presented by Emma Mason for the Faculty of Arts Building Festival on Friday 20 May, 2022.

This small exhibition of twelve elegies marks the period of mourning and loss through which our Arts community, like the rest of the world, have endured through the last two years. The current war between Russia and the Ukraine have also produced mass outpourings of grief for those who have suffered and continue to suffer under its violence. Ecological loss too asks us to reflect on our relationship to creation more broadly. As one of our PhD students in English, Nic Hamer, argues in her current project, elegy is supposed to redeem and console through the organic cycles of the seasons, birth and death, growth and decline, but environmental loss desecrates the very rhythms of these cycles.

The poems selected here mark different kinds of loss: the death of lovers (Tennyson; Monette), parents (Trethewey; Laird; McKay), children (Philips), soldiers (Whitman), adolescence (Wordsworth), love (Cavafy; Jennings), the environment (Rilke), and faith (the Pearl poet). Sometimes the experience of grief is redressed: Cavafy finds hope in remembering early childhood feelings of passion, and the Catholic Jennings engages attention to the nonhuman as a way of encountering love not as will but as faith. Rilke’s Duino Elegies, written over ten years as the poet suffered often from depression, admit to existential pain while investing deeply in an intensely mystical Christian vision. McKay marks the passing of his mother in a poem that simultaneously tracks the extensive racism he encountered both in Jamaica, where he was born in 1889, the American South, and New York. His collection Harlem Shadows, written while he was becoming a leading voice in the Harlem Renaissance, rings with elegiac protests against white violence and bigotry.

For William Wordsworth, writing a century earlier, the owl-mimic he describes in ‘There was a boy’ invokes a child figure to whom the reader might aspire, carefully living with the watery vales of Cumbria and spending time listening quietly to its sounds. It is a child Wordsworth appears to depict as lost until we realise we as readers are with the narrator at a grave standing silently for a ‘long half-hour together’. Poetic depictions of time as independent of our artificially constructed clock-time, slow and fast with our own experience of it, help us through the darkest periods as Monette describes in one of many elegies he wrote for his lover, Rog, who died from AIDS. These laments for the dead are at once sad and mournful, hopeful and consoling, marking and commemorating those for whom we care most.