Formal Elegy Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Formal Elegy,” as an elegy, attempts to point the reader toward the future following the death of someone important. Traditionally, elegies offer hope; this one offers little. In the final stanza, the speaker echoes what one now recognizes as the sentiments of a generation that watched these details unfold on television screens across the nation; yet there is much less reverence here: “Everybody should/ have his sweet boneyards. Yet let the young not go,/ our apprentice King! Alas,/ muffled, he must.” There is sorrow for the youth of the president who was “ours.” Yet the reference to Kennedy as king recalls the press’s image of Camelot, and, in this poem, images created by the press are not necessarily to be trusted. The speaker had claimed earlier that “I would not perhaps have voted for him next time,” and so the term “apprentice King” implies that this young president had much to learn and was not (yet) a hero. The tragedy is his youth; all that is known is that he “seemed good.”

The next step, the speaker tells Americans, is to “abandon the scene of disorder. Drop/ them shattered bodies into tranquil places,/ where moulder as you will. We compose our faces/ready again.” From the tone of the poem thus far, the reader can understand this as a shameful method of dealing with grief, yet it is the way Americans always survive. The problem now is the emphasis on image, on the effect of a disjointed televised history upon...

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