The Unquiet Grave Critical Essays

Cyril Connolly


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

What saves The Unquiet Grave, in large part, from being simply a lachrymose exercise in elegiac regret is the way in which Connolly imposes one kind of literary form upon another. The basic form is that of the occasional essay, which has a centuries-long tradition in European letters. Indeed, the question of the value of life (which is part of Connolly’s theme) can be seen in the dialogues of Plato— sometimes with a very serious tone, sometimes with a kind of sophisticated playfulness. That thinking about subjects of importance can, in itself, be entertaining as well as enlightening was an idea put into practice throughout the history of Western literature, by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne on the Continent and by Sir Thomas Browne, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, and Charles Lamb in Great Britain. Connolly is at one with that tradition, knowing that his personal problems can, if expressed intelligently and within the context of other writers’ work, go beyond the particularity of the single situation and can, in the best sense of the word, “delight” the reader.

The essay, however, is not the only form used in The Unquiet Grave: Connolly imposes another structure on top of the civilized musings about life which are common to the essay tradition. What he develops is a prose version of what is commonly known in poetry as the “dramatic monologue,” which reached its most successful expression in the work of the nineteenth century English poet Robert Browning. A character, possessing some qualities, some social position, some peculiar gift or task, is brought by those peculiarities to a moment of crisis; sometimes the character is quite deeply affected by the situation, sometimes he or she is insensitive to what is happening, but ultimately the pattern of the poem leads to a moment of enlightenment. The poem itself, in its pattern of working through the problem, provides the solution, and the character is able to move forward into conduct consistent with the understanding of what must be done to survive. In “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” Roland is full of doubt, chagrin, and a sense of betrayal; in the end, having thought the problem through as he approaches his task, he is prepared to fight—whatever the odds, however badly he has been used. Melancholy stasis gives way to action. That is exactly what Connolly, through the character Palinurus, achieves in his prose version of the usually poetic form.

Palinurus, the pilot of Aeneas’ ship in the epic poem (c. 29-19 b.c.e.) by Vergil, falls asleep at the helm. He falls overboard and manages to get ashore, but he is killed by savages. Since Palinurus is left...

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