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I’d like to extract Branka Arsic’s theories on Thoreau from their Romantic context and consider some of her claims in the broader context they deserve; specifically, I’m interested in the way that Thoreau’s work is illuminated, for Arsic, by the particularities of grief in Greek tragedy and, worlds and centuries away, at the then-cutting-edge theories on vitalism, matter, and the organic/inorganic coming out of Harvard in the 1840s. For Thoreau, Greek myth and Cambridge science both offered possibilities for “life’s capacity for transmutation and literal continuity” () – and this flux between inanimate and animate objects in the natural world provided new ways of thinking about death.

What I am interested in, however, is not as much Thoreau’s radical epistemological revision of Western subjectivity, where the mind opens and empties itself in order to form a communion of sorts with the world in its “suchness.” Rather, I am interested in the earlier claims of Bird Relics, one set aside in the greater thrust of the narrative: specifically, how what I read as a neutralized subjectivity is related not just to the metaphysical qualities of life and death but additionally to the ethical position an individual takes as a result of this alteration. For Thoreau, eschewing individualist personal identity in favor of an impersonal view of all matter leads to the possibility of collective, communal grief; less clear, however, are the ways in which vitalism and the deprioritization of the human might lead to perpetual mourning, the alaston penthos that interests Thoreau in the work of Euripides and others.

I’m interested in the space between perpetual mourning and collective mourning exactly because I think this opens up room for a broader analysis of vitalism and mourning, one which passes beyond or diverges from Thoreau’s particular epistemologies and looks at other authors in modern and contemporary poetics. I remain interested in an ethics of loss which is “closer to an ontological operation of restoration of the loss than the modern psychological commitment to protecting the interest of the mourner” (Arsic 20) but, outside of Thoreau, I wonder whether this project is achieved elsewhere in the contemporary elegiac tradition. If so, perhaps – I hope to determine – the tactic involved is not necessarily Thoreau’s “radical weakening of the self” (22) but, rather, the presentation of landscape as an alternate subjectivity.

That is to say, I am interested in the landscape as a plane which has its own meaning and ontology, and which operates in balance with the human/individual concerns of the lyric subject. This is a difficult balance: different from the allegorized and subjugated nature of, for example, the traditional pastoral elegy, but without necessarily consuming or relativizing the self.

As the previous paragraph made obvious, I’d like to link these thoughts on alaston penthos, subjectivity, and the vital nonhuman world to more genre-spanning studies on the poetic elegy: this is a subject I have a longstanding academic interest in, and one which generally agrees that modern/contemporary poetics have, in changing the relationship of humans and nature, also changed the relations of humanity to grief.

This is part of a broader problem about the natural world and its poetic representation, but for my purposes it’s best summarized in what Neal Alexander and David Cooper, in their anthology Poetry and Geography, call “a key tension in the post-war period between emplacement and displacement,” where “at one end of the spectrum place is regarded as stable, permanent, and intimately familiar, whereas at the other it is characterized as unsettled, in process, and radically open to change.” What seems to be missing in the semantic web of elegaic criticism I’m familiar with (Peter Sacks, Jahan Ramazani, Susan Gilbert, and more location/author-specific critics as well) is exactly this triangulation between grief, modernity, and landscape; ambivalent/resistant grief and compromised/anthropocenic nature are both widely understood as separate concerns of (post)modernity but without a strong sense of the exact metaphysical effects these concepts have on each other.

At the moment, I’m searching for texts which seem to maintain this particularly modern rapprochement between the lyric I and the landscape it is placed in. My sense, too, is that this will be found in the sequence, the long poem, or the book/collection rather than in the individual lyric, precisely because a balance between settlement and unsettlement is best played out on a large field; perhaps Mei-Mei Brussenbruge’s Hello, the Roses might achieve this weird tension, but I find myself drawn so far, instead, to lyric poetry outside the bounds of our class: Louise Gluck’s Averno in particular, but also Seamus Heaney’s “Glanmore Sonnets,” and so on. (Obviously, this theoretical jump needs development, but my felt sense is that this might connect to the scale of landscape, the sense of an infinite scale which provokes a sense not of the sublime or of the unimportance of the self but of an alternative timeline, working outside and alongside the human scale of grief.)

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