Jazz | Classical/Contemporary | Rock/Singer-Songwriter



Richard Jonathan

Richard Jonathan is the author of the literary novel ‘Mara, Marietta: A Love Story in 77 Bedrooms

This essay, the first of four posts on the elegy in music, aims to offer a fresh perspective on the genre. Posts 2, 3 and 4 address, respectively, the elegy in jazz, in classical/contemporary music, and in the rock/singer-songwriter tradition. Each one discusses, both musicologically and more generally, a piece (or series of pieces) by three composers. Here, in this first post,1 my aim is to offer a critical vision of the elegy that may serve as a touchstone for assessing the effectiveness, as an elegy, of each work presented. Part 1 provides a framework for making that assessment in a principled way. In the introductions to parts 2, 3 and 4 I will offer, for each piece, my own appraisal. Then, after you have read the analyses and commentaries on the works, it will be up to you to reflect on your own responses.2 My aim is to encourage discerning judgment and discriminating taste: ‘anything goes’ goes nowhere, and nowhere is rarely an interesting place to be. Moreover, insofar as this essay is philosophical, it will be resolutely bold and personal: the ‘safety’ of the middle-of-the-road is not for me.


1 – Henceforth, I will refer to the posts in the series as parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.
2 –I invite you to leave your remarks in the Comment Box at the bottom of each page.

Deborah Turbeville, Newport Remembered, 1992 | Composite: RJ

If all poetry exists as a record of life snatched from the destructive flow of time, and so to some extent all poetry is elegiac,1 then, more narrowly defined, the elegy is a mournful or plaintive poem or song, especially a lament for the dead2 that responds to bereavement with some combination of sorrow, shock, rage, emptiness, bewilderment or hauntedness.3 The essence of the elegy, then, is the poet’s response to time and death. This time that we can neither arrest nor reverse, nor even slow down, is the most inexorable form of our destiny, and consequently of our solitude.4 Insofar as it is a response to time and death, then, the elegy, I will argue, necessarily expresses an ethics. Just as in everyday life ethics degrades into morality—morality prepares one’s funeral, ethics prepares one for death—so the elegy, more often than not, degrades from a living organic form to a dead language of cliché. I can easily demonstrate this in poetry, but when it comes to music I lack an adequately educated ear. While I concur with Nietzsche that without music life would be a mistake,5 I take comfort from Claude Lévi-Strauss’ assertion that since music is the only language with the contradictory attributes of being at once intelligible and untranslatable, the musical creator is a being comparable to the gods, and music itself the supreme mystery of the science of man.6 I will therefore, in the analysis of the pieces, call on musicologists, while for the rest I will rely on my own resources, inviting you, dear reader, to understand that what I have to say about the elegy in poetry applies, mutatis mutandis, to the elegy in music.


1 – Andrew Motion & Stephen Regan, The Penguin Book of Elegy: Poems of Memory, Mourning and Consolation (London: Penguin Books, 2023) Kindle Edition.
2 – Collins English Dictionary.
3 – Motion & Regan, op. cit.
4 – Vladimir Jankélévitch, L’irréversible et la nostalgie (Paris: Flammarion, 1974) pp. 12-13. Translated here by Richard Jonathan.
5 – Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols. Number 33 in the ‘Maxims and Arrows’ section. (London: Penguin Books, 1990) p. 36
6 – Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, tr. John & Doreen Weightman (London: Pimlico, 1994) p. 18

Deborah Turbeville, Newport Remembered, 1992

Two overarching principles inform my vision of the elegy. One: a child struggling to hold back his tears is more moving than a child who is crying. Two: memory is the past tense of desire. Desire, insofar as it is doomed to frustration, is characterized by tension, as is, more obviously, the child struggling to hold back her tears. Tension and movement, ambiguity and ambivalence, flux and flow animate all art, and yet audiences the world over prefer the shiny bauble devoid of these qualities to the authentic gem that is suffused with them. Why? Again, it is a question of ethics: in the face of time and death, most people prefer equilibrium and stasis to tension and movement, univocity and certainty to ambiguity and ambivalence, fixity and rootedness to flux and flow. An elegy that panders to such preferences invites its audience to come and have a good cry at the feet of the deceased, to retreat into a musico-maternal womb where an idealized calm reigns—no conflict, no difference, no individuality—in short, no reality. Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.1 In contrast, an elegy that takes the opposite ethical stance acknowledges both love and hate, anger and sorrow, determination and despair; rejecting the trope of both the weeping woman and the impassive man, it will radiate a virile femininity.


1 – T.S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, Four Quartets.

Deborah Turbeville, Newport Remembered, 1992

Absence and loss, the rhythms of grief, the intimate hand-in-hand with the visceral; the need to remember, the need to forget, holding-on contending with letting-go: an elegy that accepts the ambivalence of mourning affirms ambiguity. The disordered family is full of dutiful children and parents, says Lao-Tzu, morality arises when goodness is lost.1 The pandering elegy takes ‘dutiful’ and ‘morality’ at face value: the elegy driven by ethics does not. If one makes of astonishment a language for deciphering the world,2 if one lives as though one were seeing the world for both the first and the last time, if one frees oneself from fascination with the future and realizes, as Goethe wrote, that the present alone is our happiness,3 than, having lived a good life, one can die a good death. The elegy composed for one who has ‘died a good death’ differs radically from a lament that idly rages at death itself.


1 – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way. A New English Version by Ursula Le Guin (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1998). In the second phrase, I have opted for a different translation from Le Guin’s, which goes: ‘In the degradation of the great way come benevolence and righteousness’.
2 – Anne Dufourmantelle, Blind Date: Sex and Philosophy, tr. Catherine Porter (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007) p. 15
3 – Pierre Hadot, The Present Alone is Our Happiness: Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold Davidson, tr. Marc Djaballah (Stanford University Press, 2009) p. 167

Deborah Turbeville, Newport Remembered, 1992

An elegy that conceives of its subject as a being without alterity is an elegy devoid of an animating tension. As Julia Kristeva explains in Strangers to Ourselves, there is an otherness at the core of the subject; the subject can relate to an other as other because she is an other to herself. Ethics, she adds, operates as an open system. It moves between law and transgression, always in process, on trial, under revision. It respects the irreconcilable strangeness of the split subject.1 An elegy that is content to adulate and lament, an elegy that takes no account of negativity, is a hymn to conformity. In contrast, an elegy that eschews ‘fit’ in favour of ‘split’ recognizes the alterity within the subject and honours the way he or she lived with it. In so doing, it recognizes the subject as an individual. On one side, then, fit and conformity; on the other, split and individuality. To honour the subject’s individuality while expressing one’s own: this, to me, is essential for a good elegy.


1 – Cited in Kelly Oliver, ed., The Portable Kristeva, Updated Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002)

 Deborah Turbeville, Newport Remembered, 1992

If solitude is a recurring motif in the elegy, a distinction can be made between a ‘lament for the lonely’ and an affirmation of individuality. In Responsibility and Judgement, Hannah Arendt writes: Ethically, the only reliable people when the chips are down are those who say ‘I can’t.’ Ethics concerns the individual in his singularity. The criterion of right and wrong, the answer to the question, ‘What should I do?’ depends on what I decide with regard to myself. In other words, I cannot do certain things, because having done them I will no longer be able to live with myself. This being with myself and judging by myself is experienced in the processes of thought (an activity in which I speak with myself about whatever happens to concern me). The mode of existence present in this silent dialogue of myself with myself I call solitude. The ultimate standard for conduct toward others is the self. This I call Socratic ethics.1 An elegy derived from collective dogma is less likely to stand that test of time than one derived from individual experience: solitude and singularity are more interesting than ‘atmospheric loneliness’. Likewise, an elegy derived from an actively forged ethics is more likely to make a mark than an elegy derived from a passively received morality.


1 – Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgement (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2009) p. 72

Deborah Turbeville, Newport Remembered, 1992

The elegy deals in time and death, in the irreversibility of time and the inevitability of death. One’s attitude towards time and death, I have argued, derives from one’s ethics, and therefore ethics and the elegy are intimately entwined. In a bid to offer one more illustration of how these dynamics play out, I turn now to Zhuangzi. The accomplished man, asserts the Chinese sage, uses his spirit as a mirror. The virtue of the mirror is that it accepts but does not hold: it reflects everything it encounters but allows things to pass by without clinging to them. It does not reject or retain. Detachment (from both the world and the self) and concentration of energy lead to the refinement and emancipation that make my vital capacity alert and communicative.1 The elegy that ‘accepts but does not hold’, that ‘allows things to pass without clinging to them’, that keeps its ‘vital capacity alert and communicative’ is an elegy that transcends lament and fosters lucidity, and eschews the comfort of the crowd in favour of individuality.


1 – Zhuangzi, Basic Writings tr. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003)

Deborah Turbeville, Newport Remembered, 1992

And there you have it, dear reader, what I hope is a fresh perspective on the elegy.

Deborah Turbeville, Newport Remembered, 1992


A literary novel by Richard Jonathan






A literary novel by Richard Jonathan

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