This week I’m teaching poems by Thomas Gray, William Cowper, and Oliver Goldsmith in my honors class. The goal is to gesture toward Romanticism. I love all three writers and their works, so it’s a good note to end our class on. (Here’s a cool site on Gray.)

But one side effect of teaching Gray’s “Sonnet on the Death of Mr. Richard West” and “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” is that it puts you in the mood for music that expresses the loss of loved ones.

As I’ve been reading and teaching Gray this week, the artist who keeps coming to mind is Patty Griffin, not that all her music is sad or anything like that, but quite a bit of it is mournful or about loss. I recently downloaded her album Impossible Dream from Napster. I really like “Love Throw a Line,” “Rowing Song,” and “Useless Desires.”

While Impossible Dream is good, I think 1000 Kisses is a more satisfying album. “Making Pies” alone is a masterpiece. “Be Careful” and “Mil Besos” are also among my favorites. The song that’s been coming to my mind this week is “Rain.” Here’s the video:

I love this video. I don’t usually like animated videos, but I think the animation works really well in this one: it captures the tone of the song without becoming too maudlin.

The other song that’s been buzzing in my head as I read Gray’s elegies is Pink’s “Who Knew.” Here’s the video for it:

First off, I want to say that I love Pink. I think she’s immensely talented as a vocalist. Her strength as a woman and interpretative ability lyrically make her one of my favorite younger female singers. Missundaztood is a great album — I frequently walk around singing “Just Like a Pill,” which is also a great video!

I know that neither of songs is exactly fit with Gray’s poetry, but they do kind of get at some of the same things he’s writing about. It might be stretching it a bit, but this lyric in particular reminds me of both Gray’s Sonnet and Elegy:

I wish I could touch you again
I wish I could still call you friend
I’d give anything

I love George Haggerty’s reading of Gray’s poetry, a chapter entitled “Gray’s Tears” in Men in Love. I also love Andrew Elfenbein’s reading of Cowper in Romantic Genius. Both of these scholars study these authors’ encoding of (homo)sexuality into their poetry (though it’s certainly possible that neither poet does so consciously).

Maybe it’s especially appropriate to be reading these poems of loss and grief as I say goodbye to another quarter’s worth of students, though having students leave is nothing near as tragic as losing the love of one’s life, as Gray eulogizes. It’s difficult not to feel some sympathy (in the eighteenth-century sense of the word) with at least one stanza in Gray’s Elegy:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.

As my favorites of the past few years graduate and go on with their lives and careers, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll remain here in Athens, far from the madding crowd, sequestered and ultimately forgotten by, and perhaps even forgetting, them.

Plus, I suddenly find myself in middle age — I’m now closer to 40 than 30 — and confronting thoughts of my own mortality. Gray’s elegy purports to be content with the common prospect of death, but the poem also seems to work against that mortality — after all, it was an immensely successful poem even in Gray’s own lifetime. He both longs for the grave and the morbid sense of community that it seems to represent and he remains connected to this life and the one friend heaven has granted him.

I’m definitely not longing for any graves, but I do recognize that I’m not 20 anymore, that I am mortal, and that the people I love will also no longer exist some day. The concept of not-being is so difficult to grasp. I suppose this is where literature comes in handy. This man, Thomas Gray, wrote about life and death and (maybe homo) love some 250 years ago. Through his words, we can reach back and feel our common humanity. What matters to me, I guess, is having had that feeling in regards to various people — Gray, Griffin, Pink, my students, etc. That we have those moments is what makes life special, even if they are all too temporal and someday forgotten.

To paraphrase Harper from Angels in America, this is the most depressing post I’ve ever had! Tomorrow my honors class is going to look at some of the cat poems of the mid- to late-eighteenth century. They’re even more depressing! At least I have Paisley on my lap right now keeping me and my middle-aged (and very achy after my first workout with my new trainer) body company!

Paisley

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