It is believed that Elizabeth Barrett Browning was mourning her brother when she wrote this Victorian era poem. Sadly, it seems that she had to justify her feelings.
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning
I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless;
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness,
In souls as countries, lieth silent-bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy dead in silence like to death—
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet:
If it could weep, it could arise and go.
There are poems, more than can ever be counted, about death and dying. That are about the act of becoming dead, an experience none of us can actually give a first-hand account of. Such poems are about something the poet has not really experienced, and so is drawn to write about it. In many ways death is the great unknown. It has often been said that Emily Dickinson was obsessed with the subject. These poems of death may or may not be comforting to a reader.
There has evolved another body of work sometimes called bereavement poetry, from which poems to read at funerals and memorial services are often culled. These poems, then, are read and often written to bring comfort to the grieving.
These death and bereavement verses may or may not be poems of grief which are, and should be thought of, as a completely distinct category of poetry. And a wide body of work it is. I have even found a substantial sub-category within it that are poems all about the loss of a pet. I suspect that we have been writing grief poems as long as we have been writing. Some of the great Greek lyric poet Sappho’s surviving fragments are of mourning a lost loved one (though it is unclear if her lover had died or walked away).
Grief poems are first-hand accounts, they are always about what has been experienced by the writer. They communicate in some way the experience of loss by a poet connected, probably intimately, to a death. Often the poet is speaking directly to the deceased. They are not about understanding death necessarily, they are about bearing witness to it, and the bearing is usually visceral and intense. The poet’s intention is not to bring comfort to anyone else. Similar to the great body of poetic works on the subject of love, grief poems are often written while the poet is in an altered state of psychological being. But unlike the fleeting euphoric experience of love, the defeating experience of loss fundamentally changes us psychologically from the way we were before the experience. Profoundly and permanently. Also unlike love the experience of loss can and does trigger depression, physical illness, and even hallucinations, which are normal reactions to it.
More than any other emotion or experience a poet may be writing about, the experience of grief is strangely acute. It is like no other. It is a physical, emotional, social, and perhaps even financial, life alteration that one has little or no control over. It is most likely perceived as pain. For some it progresses into what is called complicated grief, for some it may even develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Loss of a beloved is a shocking raw wound one might equate to a disemboweling, but that medicine cannot really heal. And though there is some truth to the old dictum about time, grief obeys no temporal boundaries.
It is so vast, and so consuming, that it is simply human nature to want and / or need to express it from oneself. And poetry can be one of the safest and healthiest ways to do so. The therapeutic value of poetry is well-documented in medical literature though scientific study is hardly necessary. I am just one of so many thousands who can testify to it.
In fact, I was so assisted in my healing process by reading and writing poetry that together with a friend, poet Kyle Potvin, I founded a little non-profit foundation we call The Prickly Pear Poetry Project simply to share the profound healing power of poetry in processing the cancer experience as survivors or caregivers of those who lost their battle. We had both experienced those battles and we had found solace in poetry that quite literally helped us to endure it. We designed a writing workshop that we team-teach at oncology and community centers. We mentor participants from diverse writing backgrounds in tapping into their experiences and releasing them onto the page. We share the work of well-known poets as well as our own. We prompt participants to produce work that we often share in the group in a work shopping atmosphere that is always filled with light even as we go into the darkest places. And getting into the light is what it is all about.
As can be found in The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival (Kent State University Press, 2014) grief poetry is as varied as the writers themselves. Just like the experience of grief, it is all over the place. Some experts claim that the bereaved go through five stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Naturally all of these emotions, and many more experts probably can’t attest to, will show up in grief poetry. In the Browning poem that I opened with it is believed she was waylaid by guilt when she wrote it, another big one the experts rarely mention. Some emotions, like humor or relief, may be as hard for others to read of as the saddest admissions of suicidal ideation or roars of rage at God.
There is I believe only one thing all grief poetry has in common; that it is not what Browning wrote of, it is not hopeless grief, and that is evidenced by its passion. That is what is behind the healing power of grief poetry. It is in that searing anguish of deepest despair when we,
“beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach”
that we find hope. That is what grief expressed is and does. It extinguishes hopeless grief. And allows us to live, which we may have previously thought impossible.
And still, though we have come so very far since Browning’s era in allowing the demonstration of normal human emotion, we remain undeniably uncomfortable dealing with the bereaved. Here grief poetry helps both the writer who can express their deepest truth, and the reader who can process it in his or her own time and way. And thus we are all served - those of us carrying the weight now and those who care about us.
The Widows’ Handbook is a book of hope. Please know it and share it as such, with hearts not heavy, but light, like a thing with feathers.
And thus we get to this; one of my favorite poems, from The Book of Light, (Copper Canyon Press, 1992, page 20).
By Lucille Clifton
after he died
what really happened is
she watched the days
bundle into thousands,
watched every act become
the history of others,
every bed more
but even as the eyes of lovers
strained toward the milky young
she walked away
from the hole in the ground
deciding to live. and she lived.