Using Poetry to Understand Grief

I am often drawn to poems that discuss both personal and collective emotions and understanding (which I suppose is most poetry, really) and at this time of pandemic, I wanted to share a couple of poems that I think show grief from both angles. Grief can be personal and collective at the same time—funerals are a way for society to collectively support the personal loss of family and friends. When a society looses so many members at once, that group support seems to be missing, and the mourning has taken place only in the personal realm. It has become easier to get numb to the huge numbers that have died in the pandemic, rather than acknowledge how many are gone. When I read poetry, I can bring that understanding back to a personal level, instead of being overwhelmed by the big numbers that are listed each day. The PBS NewsHour has done this by sharing individual stories each night of people who have died from Covid.

So here, I will share two different poems, one by Elizabeth Barret Browning titled Grief, and one by Edna St. Vincent Millay called Dirge Without Music. The first one was published in 1844, and Browning describes a ‘hopeless grief’ that is passionless. She gives a good description of how grief can turn inward when it seems there is no relief, and how that can become something that is never expressed publicly. In the second poem, Dirge Without Music, Edna St. Vincent Millay gives us the other side, the personal grief that isn’t hopeless. She talks about loosing large numbers of people, but she gives them personal traits to remind us of the individuals that are lost. She ends the poem with “And I am not resigned.” This is the other side of grief, and is the opposite of the ‘hopeless grief’ described by Ms. Browning.

I don’t do in-depth analysis of the poems I share here, but I do want to give my reasons for including them, and why I like to read poetry. These two poems have many depths of meaning that will depend on the reader to discover, and I hope they appeal to others like they do to me. (I had asked for permission to show the whole poem by Ms. Millay here, but since I have not heard back from my request, I will just give the first line to encourage you to read the whole poem using the link I am providing below the first line of the poem.)


I tell you hopeless grief is passionless
That only men incredulous of despair, 
Half-taught in anguish, through them midnight air
Beat upward to God's throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness
In souls, as countries, lieth silent - bare
Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for they dead in silence like to death--
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet;
If it could weep, it could arise and go.
                          Elizabeth Barret Browning
Dirge Without Music (first line only)
         Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away 
               of loving hearts in the hard ground.
(Click here to visit for the rest of the verse)

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