Mourning and Sexuality in the English Elegy
This is an advanced seminar on poetic history and form. Specifically, we'll be exploring the continuity of a major poetic genre (the elegy) in relation to the discontinuities it thematizes: death and sex. From antiquity to the present, poets have struggled to give expression to diverse experiences of loss, and erotic attachment has always helped define the terms in which loss gets expressed. "Let love clasp grief," Tennyson implores in his great elegy In Memoriam, "lest both be drowned." We will explore the connections between death and sex in a wide variety of English and American elegies from the Renaissance to the present. Authors will include Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Alexander Pope, Percy Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Thom Gunn, and Marilyn Hacker. In their poems of grief and memory, these writers raise challenging questions about desire, identification, reproduction, gender, and sexuality. Elegy's traditional male-centeredness will encourage us to pay special attention not only to the work of female poets from Anne Bradstreet and Christina Rossetti to Anne Sexton and Audre Lorde, but also to the male homoerotics of elegy from Thomas Gray and Lord Byron to James Merrill and Stuart Hemphill. We will consider the erotics of form and the gendering of poetic language. We will also encounter some extreme conjunctions of mourning and sexuality, such as Sylvia Plath's sadomasochism and Edgar Allan Poe's necrophilia. To help enrich and extend our discussion of the poems, we will read some accounts of mourning and sexuality from the fields of psychoanalysis, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and literary criticism, by authors such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Sigmund Freud, Georges Bataille, Julia Kristeva, Peter Sacks, Douglas Crimp, Zygmunt Bauman, and Judith Butler. Course requirements will include a variety of shorter and longer writing assignments—with the possibility of compiling, researching, and editing together an actual anthology of elegies for publication.