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14 - ‘Time will erase’: Anne Stevenson and Elegy

Tim Kendall
Affiliation:
University of Exeter
Angela Leighton
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
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Summary

In the autumnal opening section of Anne Stevenson's book-length elegy A Lament for the Makers (2006), ‘the season of deciduous souls’ provokes a sobering thought about the endurance of poetry:

A last, late finger of grace

still brightens far reaches

of a barbarous empire

lyrically and lovingly.

Most of what we write

time will erase.

Such small comfort as can be gleaned from this world of decay comes from the word ‘lyrically’, which signals the poem's self-representation as a ‘last, late finger of grace’ before the dying of the light. The word ‘grace’ connotes secular sanctification: poetry has replaced religion and does religion's work, although it now risks going the way of religion into obsolescence. Despite her worry, Stevenson enacts the Lament's continuing faith in lyrical light by reserving for this passage some of her most exquisite images: ‘gold smoulder[s] to umber’ in a ‘reredos of beeches’ illuminated ‘with Byzantine fire’. (The ‘reredos’ suggests and displaces religion again.) But notwithstanding the gorgeous conflagration, the year is inevitably ‘darkening’. By alluding to Dunbar, Stevenson's title recognises that poets have no special dispensation to be spared the way of all flesh: ‘Sparit is nocht ther faculte’, the poem's epigraph quotes from its medieval predecessor.

Even the consoling survival of poetry cannot be assumed. As Stevenson explains in interview, she writes her Lament as an elegy not only for poets but for poetry itself – ‘at least for the kind of poetry that, at my lowest ebb, I imagine is about to disappear from Western civilisation’.

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Voyages over Voices
Critical Essays on Anne Stevenson
, pp. 206 - 213
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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