Conquering Grief: Literature as a Consolation

poe

This article was written by Amarie Fox who also provided a beautiful painting to accompany her work. You can find a link to purchase Amarie’s art at the end of this article.

Visible throughout nature, from the bloom of a flower to its eventual blight, the fundamental concepts of life and death are forever at work. As two closely intertwined components of a complete cycle, which cannot be severed apart, they shape and balance the physical world. Like gatekeepers, they assure that everything that enters into being eventually passes away. Yet, we do not weep for the single withering red rose at winters approach. It is only in the aftermath of a human loss that we fall into a state of complete misery. Suddenly, what was once a distant, vague reality becomes personal and we take on new roles – that of the victim, the abandoned, the deserted. In order to carry on, we search not only for answers, but also for opportunities to lessen our pain.

Art, especially literature, is a perfect solution for such a universal, unavoidable concern, because it serves a dual purpose in that it provides widespread consolation to an audience of readers, while also still being an outlet for the writer.

Recently, a friend of mine lost his father in a motorcycle accident. On the way to the hospital, where I would ultimately witness him identify his father’s body with a tearful nod of his head, he asked me what he was supposed to do. How was he supposed to go on living his life? What was life in the days after a death?

Of course, I couldn’t answer him. I don’t think I had the right to answer him. Of course, I have had my own share of personal losses, but nothing as severe and immediate that rivaled his experience. Instead, I went home that night and remembered all of the books that had been written about death, grieving, loss. There were so many.

Edgar Allan Poe came first to my mind, though. For, he used his work not only to quell personal grief, but also reach out to others with a tone of sincere understanding.

19th Century Grief

To a modern reader, Poe’s handling of death and use of imagery could seem macabre or morbid. Today, our comfort with the subject of death has certainly faded away, considering that only two hundred or so years ago postmortem portraiture was still quite common.

It was the very prevalence of death in 19th century American culture, which allowed different methods of grieving that would be deemed unacceptable or unusual today – such as keeping locks of hair or dressing in black for an extended period of time – to become the established norm. Poe does not conjure up dark, depressing atmospheres to depress a reader, as much as he withes to transcend them. It is through his individual portrait of grief that he is able to deliver solace to the bereaved with the implication that there is another world beyond this one.

Annabel Lee

One of the greatest grief poems of the 19th century, in my opinion, has to be Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” Having lost his wife, Virginia, in 1847, it is certainly possible that Poe composed “Annabel Lee,” out of personal motivations, since his work carries with it the authorial tone of a man who has lost a spouse. Whether or not that is the case, though, it is his methodology that stands apart. From the opening lines, the poem reads almost like a fairytale. There is a couple, very much in love with each other, and they live in a kingdom that exists by the sea. However, the mood soon grows darker as the events unfold.

Beneath the surface of the story is a fixation on the beauty of the deceased. In fact, Annabel Lee is referred to as beautiful on four separate occasions. It is so significant to her identity that it exists beyond the grave, is transferred over into her afterlife, and is capable of haunting the speaker.

The obsession with the physical and especially beauty are especially remarkable here, in that the speaker desires physical closeness with his beloved, even if it means lying near her grave. Again, to the modern reader, this could be seen as drastic behavior of a man in denial, but in another way, through the 19th century lens – which must be used to understand this poem – the speaker is grieving in his own unique way. During this time, it was perfectly acceptable for the bereaved to actually climb into the casket with their lost ones. Poe’s audience would have known this. He does not have to explain it to anyone.

For the speaker, just because she is dead, Annabel Lee is still everything she was before, if only fragmented and split into two. Dreams and thoughts of Annabel Lee would be torturous to the speaker, but he finds comfort in being close to her physical body, even if that body is dead and in a grave, because, in a way, he wants the fantasies of her and her body to be reunited and like they were when she was alive.

Perhaps, not quite typical to a grief poem, is Poe’s use of religion. He does not use conventional Christian imagery. Instead, he treats typical Christian imagery like angels and demons as adversaries. The introduction of the angels as enemies, though, is important, because even though the poem hints toward blaming them, it also gives the speaker the opportunity to reveal that nothing “can ever dissever my soul from the soul / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.” Even these supernatural beings cannot touch their connection, so why would natural death?

Of course, Poe may not align himself with a typical Christian ideology such as heaven, but he does believe in love as an almost spiritual institution, which transcends the material world. The soul lives beyond the grave, in another world, and because in love two souls are bonded as one, in a way the deceased will always live with us. Our biggest fallibility as human beings may be that we’re too focused on sensation and physical – which is why the speaker wants to be close to Annabel Lee – but if we can find any comfort in mourning, Poe suggests that it should be in the fact that a soul, in all its beauty, lingers on eternally.

‘Spread and Shared’

In the beginning, we are all born as gardens, overflowing with fruit and flowers. When the people we love die, we’re completely gutted. Nature comes along with a cruel hand, raking us apart, until we’re only a field of holes and no longer a garden, but a mess. The outcome of the image is obviously bleak, even disheartening, but it emphasizes the reason society needs art as a consolation and coping mechanism. Never should art be an entity that exists in isolation, but something that seeks to be spread and shared. In order to communicate ideas successfully, though, the artist has to speak in a language that the audience will understand. Just as Jesus spoke in parables – borrowing common, everyday images – to clarify spiritual matters in an earthly context, Poe uses the idea of physical beauty to point to an afterlife where beauty survives.

In itself, this a comforting thought, considering that all we ever know is the physical world and that imagining anything else exceeds our mental limitations. When I explained the poem to my friend, this was what stuck with him. Not the idea of hugging a corpse or lying in a graveyard.

In the midst of grief, I think, the bereaved require one thing above all else and that is the reminder that those lost have only passed through into another sphere and are patiently waiting for us to join them.

Thoughts? Have you ever used literature as a consolation? Or have you read a piece of literature years later that reminded you of a past loss?

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Amarie Fox is a writer and artist. She is still getting comfortable with those titles. More information can be found on amariefox.tumblr.com.

You can purchase Amarie’s art at her Society6 shop.

14 Replies to “Conquering Grief: Literature as a Consolation”

  1. Yes this is beautiful Angela. Some people may question the usefulness of art but nothing else but a painting, a piece of writing, a photograph, can ever be so comforting as it slowly reveals ourselves to ourselves. Art has a way of showing us something new that we may not have thought of without the opportunity yet it helps us to explore our feelings, at first foreign and unexplainable, in tangible ways.
    I’ve never read Annabel Lee but I would like to now, you explained it beautifully.

    1. Kelsey, thank you so much for this. And I agree completely: Art is so vital and I believe it is either turning into a strange economy or put aside as ‘not so important.’ With that said, definitely give Annabel Lee a read. It is a wonderful poem and one of his best (and one of my all time favorites, obviously!) He is the one American writer that has always allowed me to pause and give thought to death and grieving and life. What can I say? He is just the best. Aha!

  2. Amarie, What a lovely thoughtful piece you’ve written. Your reference to being born as a garden reminds me of the beautiful poem, The Last Rose of Summer. “From loves shining circle, the gems drop away.” I, too, am a Poe fan and I so appreciate your dissection of Annabel Lee and your kind treatment of Mr. Poe.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Susan! It means a lot to me. I was worried how this post was going to be received, but all of the good people like yourself have quelled all of those bad thoughts.

  3. The last chapter of Julian Barnes’s “A History of the World in 10 1/2 chapters” depicts heaven where the people who love to read are the only ones who are never bored with their eternal life. That’s what I think of literature – it is eternal and universal, so it can be anything, even a consolation.

    1. I keep meaning to read A History of the World. Now that you brought it up, though, I may have to get my hands on it as soon as possible. Anyway, thank you for the comment, Jenny. And I agree fully with the idea of literature being universal and even eternal, and this being a consolation. Thank you for this.

      1. You’re welcome guys, it’s nice to hear your thoughts 🙂
        Amariefox, I hope you’ll soon find some time to read the book and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

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