Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532

“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.”

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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 people in need of continuity. People will “abandon” this reality since their memories, constructed by others, are not real. The irreverent tone concerning the burial reflects the speaker’s expectations of the American public to “moulder as you will.” In understanding history only through the television, American reverence for those once considered “excellent” will steadily decay.

The speaker refers to American people as “black & white,” possibly referring also to the medium through which Americans understand themselves: “All black & white together, stunned, survive/ the final insolence to the head of you;/ bow./ Overwhelmed-un, live.” People of all races in America will not only “survive” this crisis, but also will survive it “All black & white together,” themselves a mass of jumbled images. No longer separate entities, human and individual, they will become one audience to a mass-media show, acting, thinking, and remembering only images. Ultimately, they are not overwhelmed but merely waylaid. The poem’s final suggestion then becomes a twist on the traditional elegy’s hopeful tone: “The man of a wise face opened it to speak:/ Let us continue.” Americans always continue, but, from now on, they will be colder and harder.

Earlier, the speaker expressed his personal wish that future “bullets swim astray/ sent to the President, and that all around/ help, and his heart keep sound.” The final images draw sharp contrast between this wish and the nation’s probable progress toward recovery. This poem’s primary images are of images themselves, and their message asserts that empty images are now standard. In the future, people will “compose [their] faces/ready again” for more of the same, reacting each time with colder and more composed faces.

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