Leisure and Grief: The Recent Poetry of Chris Wallace-Crabbe

Among poetic forms, the elegy has best survived the twentieth century's antiformalist thrust. However, as Jahan Ramazani demonstrates in Poetry of Mourning, modern elegy has largely continued because of anti-elegiac impulses, producing a tension between the 'consolatory' effect of traditional elegy and (turning to Freud) a 'melancholic' impulse, whereby the modern elegist 'tends not to achieve but resist consolation, not to override but sustain anger, not to heal but to reopen the wounds of loss' (xi). Chris Wallace-Crabbe demonstrates an elegiac sensibility which, while not melancholic, configures the difficulties of elegy and elegiac poetry in individual ways which further our understanding of the elegiac character of twentieth-century poetry. Like Seamus Heaney, Wallace-Crabbe recognises elegy as maintaining a consolatory power (if diminished) and yet avoids naive or theological solutions. More broadly, Wallace-Crabbe's elegiac poetry is notable for its complex braiding of the comic and the tragic.

'Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief' writes Johnson on Milton's 'Lycidas'. Johnson is as much protesting against the highly contrived nature of seventeenth-century pastoral as against elegy, but the gnomic comment illustrates simply an anxiety underlying modern 'melancholic' elegy: the perceived artistic 'profit' gained from the dead. By the same token, Johnson's words are antithetical to most modern critics' evaluation of the status of emotion in literature. Grief, they would argue, and its expression are different things. Despite Johnson's apparent critical naivety, he disturbs our habitual, post-Romantic conceptions of life and art, one strand of which we see forming in Coleridge's definition of poetry as 'a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order'. The question then is whether order and emotion, fiction and grief, are mutually exclusive categories. If poetry is characteristically a sign of leisure then how does grief find its way into poetic statements?

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Published 1 October 1996 in Volume 17 No. 4. Subjects: Elegies, Imagery, Pastoral poetry, Poetic techniques.

Cite as: McCooey, David. ‘Leisure and Grief: The Recent Poetry of Chris Wallace-Crabbe.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 1996, doi: 10.20314/als.74e15f6732.