E'en in our ashes live their wonted fires."
What is the reason behind the death of the elegy? I personally think that the answer to the question would also answer another query: why did poetry in the last century die? Now, consider the subject matter of the elegy. It is death. And what transformation had the perception of death undergone in the twentieth century? Max Weber had early on predicted that death in a capitalist society would become meaningless. This would be the automatic byproduct of rationalization and the 'disenchantment of the world'. Sociologists refer to this process as 'desacralization'. In a society that so devalues the permanent and stresses the ephemeral, death – the most permanent of human affairs – must seem a mere inconvenience. The process of rationalization is clearly seen in poetry. Anyone who has read any amount of modern poetry will have been impressed by its highly self-conscious polish and perfection. It is like much of modern technology – soulless, technical mastery (and forged in "poetry workshops" to boot!).
"More than the 'human dignity' exalted by the humanists, it is the individual liberty to reject every authority outside of God that has made possible – by a slow process of desacralization – the 'modern world' such as it emerges in the period of the Enlightenment, and defines itself with the French Revolution and the triumph of science and technology." So observed Mircea Eliade when discussing Martin Luther in his classic A History of Religious Ideas. In his introduction he refers to "...the sole, but important, religious creation of the modern Western world. I refer to the ultimate stage of desacralization. The process is of considerable interest to the historian of religions; for it illustrates the complete camouflage of the 'sacred' – more precisely, its identification with the 'profane'."
A paragraph on death in the western world occurs, at first sight rather oddly, in a discussion of Tibetan religion: "The Bardo Thodol is certainly the best-known Tibetan religious text in the Western world. Translated and published in English in 1928, it has become, especially since 1960, a sort of bedside reading for numerous young people.... The interest it arouses, not only among the psychologists, historians, and artists, but above all among the young, is symptomatic: it indicates both the almost total desacralization of death in contemporary Western societies, and the restless inquiry and exasperated desire which seek to revalorize – religiously or philosophically – the act which terminates human existence".
Eliade's observations explain the nature of the modern elegy, especially as written by the celebrated Sylvia Plath. In her poem "Daddy", she says
"I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do."
Does that mean that she loved daddy to death? Au contraire.
"There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through."