One of the most important developments in poetry – and one that has scarcely been noticed – is the death of the elegy. Pick up The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry and you'll find no elegies. There is William Carlos Williams' 'An Elegy for D.H Lawrence'. But it is about Lawrence, the public figure, not Lawrence the friend and intimate. And there is even a note of complaint, for the poet had apparently written Lawrence a letter which the latter had never answered! "...Once he received a letter –/ he never answered it –/ praising him...."
The other titles under 'Elegy' include: 'Elegy for a Cricket', 'Elegy for a Puritan Conscience', and 'Elegy on the Dust'. I think the reader can surmise the lowly status enjoyed by the elegy in these modern times from these titles.
This is not to say that the elegy was always written for people the author had intimately known. The greatest elegy in the English language, Milton's 'Lycidas', was written subsequent to the death of his former fellow collegian, Edward King, in a shipwreck. What Milton felt was what most of us feel in the face of death – especially premature death. "For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime...." and "He must not float upon his watery bier/ Unwept, and welter to the parching wind, / Without the meed of some melodious tear."
The premature death of John Keats – partly due to tuberculosis, partly to the savage criticism meted out to his poem 'Endymion' – provoked the greatest lament of the Romantic period, Shelley's 'Adonais'. It begins clearly as a lament: 'I weep for Adonais, he is dead!/ O weep for Adonais!'.
One notices the rawness of the emotion described here – faithfully recalling the original inspiration of Bion, in his "Lament for Adonis", reaching across two thousand years: "Woe, woe for Adonis, he hath perished, the beauteous Adonis, dead is the beauteous Adonis, the Loves join in the lament. No more in thy purple raiment, Cypris, do thou sleep; arise, thou wretched one, sable-stoled, and beat thy breasts, and say to all, 'He hath perished, the lovely Adonis!'
Woe, woe for Adonis, the Loves join in the lament!"
I can imagine what a teacher at a creative writing course would say to a pupil who turned in a poem beginning with the above lines. She would say: "Not bad, but it needs to be toned down; the 'Woe, woe for Adonis' especially tells more than it shows. Understatement, my boy, understatement!" The modern mantra in poetry is 'Show, don't tell'. The idea is that the poem itself should not contain any emotion, but should provide enough information for the reader to be able to deduce, so to speak, his emotions from the information. The poem must show, not tell! It's a bit like reading a police report of a murder, in which all the emotional details have been stripped clean.
Here are the exact words of a teacher of creative writing at a 'creative writing workshop'.
"Torn from an old magazine
this richly coloured advertisement
'The timelessness of diamonds'.
Comment: it would be stronger without the second line (which "tells" more than it "shows").
Torn from an old magazine
'The timelessness of diamonds'."
If the dictum "Show, don't tell" had been applied to the whole of English (and Greek, or indeed, any) literature from the earliest days, we would not have had such priceless gems as "Lycidas", "Adonais" or Byron's elegies for Thyrza. The "Elegy for D.H Lawrence" by Williams is shot through with this technique: one can scarcely tell whether it's a dissertation on the work of Lawrence or a regret that the fellow's gone. The only indicator is the toned-down "Poor Lawrence" repeated three times! Even that would be shot down by a creative writing teacher today. (This largely explains the dissidence and dissonance of popular art: "She loves me, yea, yea, yea"..."Hey, teacher, leave 'em kids alone".)