From A Poet's Glossary: Lament

Written by

Edward Hirsch
Contributor Page

Year

2014

Type

Poetic Term or Form

In April 2014 A Poet’s Glossary by Academy Chancellor Edward Hirsch was published. As Hirsch writes in the preface, “this book—one person’s work, a poet’s glossary—has grown, as if naturally, out of my lifelong interest in poetry, my curiosity about its vocabulary, its forms and genres, its histories and traditions, its classical, romantic, and modern movements, its various outlying groups, its small devices and large mysteries—how it works.” Each week we will feature a term and its definition from Hirsch’s new book. 


lament  A poem or song expressing grief. The lament is powered by a personal sense of loss. The poetry of lamentation, which arose in oral literature alongside heroic poetry, seems to exist in all languages and poetries. One finds it, for example, in ancient Egyptian, in Hebrew, in Chinese, in Sanskrit, in Zulu. A profound grief is formalized as mourning, as in Lamentations 2:10:

The elders of the daughter of Zion sit upon the ground, and keep silence: they have cast up dust upon their heads; they have girded themselves with sackcloth: the virgins of Jerusalem hang down their heads to the ground.

The poetry of intense grief and mourning, such as the Lamentations of Jeremiah or David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan, has its roots in religious feeling and ritual. The Hebrew Bible is filled with both individual laments (a worshiper cries out to Yahweh in times of need) and communal laments, which mourn a larger national calamity.

Laments may have developed from magic spells to call back what was lost—a destroyed temple, a dead god. The “Lament for the Destruction of Ur” (early second millennium B.C.E.) memorialized the catastrophic destruction of the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112–2004 B.C.E.) and turned out to be the last great masterwork of Sumerian civilization. It is one of five known Mesopotamian “city laments,” which were the province of elegists called gala (“The Lament for Sumer and Ur,” “The Lament for Nippur,” “The Lament for Eridu,” and “The Lament for Uruk”). Thorkild Jacobsen points out that “the great laments for destroyed temples and cities usually divide into a part called bala—g ‘harp,’ which was to be sung to the strains of the harp, and a following ershemma, a lament to be accompanied by a tambourine-like drum called shem.” He suggests that the laments served ritual purposes. The ones for dead gods were performed during annual mourning processions of weeping; the ones for destroyed temples were “originally performed in the ruins to induce the gods to rebuild the destroyed structure.”

A few other haunting early examples of laments: the scop, or minstrel, in the Anglo-Saxon poem “Deor’s Lament” (ninth or tenth century) is a poet who is no longer favored and consoles himself by reciting the misfortunes of others (“That trouble passed. So can this”).  The medieval poet Yosef Ibn Avitor’s “Lament for the Jews of Zion” (eleventh century) is a mournful Spanish-Hebrew poem written after Jews were attacked by Bedouins from the tribe of Bnei Jaraakh in Palestine in 1024 (“Weep, my brothers, and mourn”); Avraham Ibn Ezra’s “Lament for Andalusian Jewry” (mid-twelfth century) is an elegy for the Jewish communities of Spain and North Africa destroyed in 1146 by the invading Almohads (“Calamity came upon Spain from the skies, / and my eyes pour forth their streams of tears”).

The late eighteenth-century poet Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, or Dark Eileen, majestically mourns the death of her husband in “Lament for Art O’Leary” (1773).  “The Hag of Beare” (ninth century), the greatest of all early Irish poems written by a woman, is a piercing lament not just for one but for many loves, an outcry against aging. The Polish poet Jan Kochanowski’s Laments (1580) consists of nineteen poems that wrestle with his grief over the death of his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter (“Wisdom for me was castles in the air; / I’m hurled, like all the rest, from the topmost stair”).  They desperately try to “Bear humanly the human lot.” Here is Shelley’s ten-line “A Lament” (Posthumous Poems, 1824):

I

O World! O life! O time!

On whose last steps I climb,

Trembling at that where I had stood before;

When will return the glory of your prime?

No more—Oh, never more!

II

Out of the day and night

A joy has taken flight;

Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar,

Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight,

No more—Oh, never more!


Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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Each week we feature a new term from Academy Chancellor Edward Hirsch'...