E is for Elegy


I promised to post, under the acronym, LOVES, limericks, odes, villanelles, elegies, and sonnets. So far, I have posted one of each, except for the elegy. The other members of LOVES require me to be in moods that I inhabit quite frequently. The Elegy, however, is a poem of death and of passing. Of course, something dies and/or passes every moment of every day. But I find it difficult to sit down and think, deliberately and continuously on such a topic. Of course, sometimes, an event occurs that puts me in the mood to contemplate death, passing, grief, and related themes. Such an event has occurred, recently. It is not the death of a person nor quite the end of a relationship but, rather, one might say, the death of a certain type of hope.

The details of the incident are irrelevant. I am certain this moment would have come, regardless of the specific incident. What is interesting, though, is that I am finally conscious that I am seeing myself as the hero of my own story. Until now, I have seen myself as nothing more than one of the many characters in my life. Seeing myself as a hero is a unique experience to me — at least being conscious of seeing myself as a hero is.

Well, what kind of a hero am I? I have been brought up in the Eastern tradition, learning Hindu folklore, practically since the moment I was conceived. But I have chosen to study folklore and, having learned English better than any other language, I have learned much Western folklore as well, in the course of my studies. Therefore, at the moment, I see myself as a hero who is something between Yudhishtira, of the Mahabharata, and Philomela of Greek folklore. Both are, in a sense, victims. Yet neither is like the Disney version of Cinderella. Neither waits to be rescued and neither permits victim status to inhibit either thought or action. Both, Yudhishtira and Philomela take matters into their own hands and, to a limited extent, are successful in achieving their revenge.

Yudhishtira, of course, being Dharmaputra, can, very literally, do no wrong. He does only what is right and he does so after much thought and deliberation. He does not simply assume that, being Dharmaputra, the child of Truth itself, he can do no wrong. He does right by choice and with full consciousness of what he is doing and what consequences he and others will suffer as a result. Therefore, it is impossible not to admire Yudhishtira when, having lost all of his money and also his kingdom, in a gambling match he knows is rigged, he returns for another match against the same person, knowing he will lose again! His reply, when asked why he is doing such a foolish thing is that, “I must give every human being, no matter how corrupt, a chance to redeem himself, even if it means I must lose myself and everything I own.” This statement shows him to be capable of taking upon himself a frightening degree of responsibility — an impossible level of responsibility, for any human being. But then he is Dharmaputra and therefore not entirely human, despite his mortality.

Philomela, on the other hand, is much more human. Tereus, King of Thrace, and husband to Procne, Philomela’s sister, rapes Philomela while escorting Philomela, from her father’s house, to Thrace, to visit Procne. Subsequently, he cuts off Philomela’s tongue so that she cannot reveal the secret to Procne. Philomela, nevertheless, tells her sister the story via tapestry, at which both sisters are skilled. Philomela and Procne then kill Procne’s son by Tereus and serve him up as a meal to Tereus. To escape Tereus’ wrath, the sisters pray to Zeus, who converts them into birds so that they can literally fly away and be free forever. The specie of birds into which the girls are transformed, is the nightingale. Interestingly, in nature, only the male nightingale can sing. The female is mute. The symbolic significance of the female nightingale being mute is fairly direct, as Philomela was mute before she was turned into a nightingale. Even Procne, though she could speak, remains silent at a crucial moment — the moment when Tereus unknowingly eats a cannibalistic meal of his own son. But the symbolism of the male nightingale’s song is too complex even to begin to interpret. Tereus himself is transformed into a hoopoe, upon his death — a bird that almost never eats other birds. So Tereus is not the male nightingale, singing about his son’s death. But then why does the male nightingale sing his melancholy song? It is not he who has suffered, in any way at all!

My elegy does not say or even very clearly imply that the male bird in the poem is a nightingale though, certainly, even a halfway decent critical analysis could easily justify such an interpretation. Although every elegy is, inescapably, a song of mourning, this particular elegy is also a song of hope — hope, not so much for the future good events, but hope, rather, that what has passed will not return, that at least the corruption, indifference, greed, and loneliness that the bird has encountered will no longer have the power to cause the bird any pain and will also no longer have the power to lead the bird, ever again, into despair.

I have only just begun this elegy. I have done my best it to model it, technically, upon Thomas Grey’s famous and beautiful poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” There are, however, many differences between my elegy and Grey’s. Grey writes about an actual human being, a young man, who lies buried in the churchyard. I write more about a person’s hopes and dreams than about any actual person, living or dead. I am not meditating in a quiet, empty, churchyard — quite the opposite, in fact. I am meditating in a temple over-crowded with living people and dynamic events. Grey admonishes the reader to respect, equally, the person of extraordinary financial and intellectual means and the person who is of only average means or even less than average means, both financially and intellectually. However, I do not believe that the grave is an equalizer.

Death, certainly, comes to all. But death, to me, is only a moment among many moments. Life goes on. And one remembers, in the end, those who made one’s life a better place, if only for a moment. It is not, then, the quantity of means available to a person that matter, in the end, but what one does, with those means. A king who, with the vast resources at his disposal, has ameliorated the lives of millions of people is, in many ways, a better man than a beggar who, for all his effort and talent, produces nothing of note, and helps nobody in any way while he is alive. But a man with no more to his name than a broken pot may uplift the hearts of thousands with his music. I request my reader not to equate or even to compare the gentle king with the talented musician but rather to appreciate the gifts of each. Each, in time, shall pass, leaving behind only the gifts.

Do not give with the expectation that as you give so you shall receive. You will always believe, in the silence of your heart, that you receive less than you give. And in the hearts of others, you will always receive more than you give. Give what gifts you can give with joy. Accept only those gifts given with joy. The rest is nothing.

My elegy mourns the passing of that which was something and has become nothing. It also celebrates the passing of that which has become nothing because, with that passing, even if I am not full, at least I am rid of that which used to make me feel empty.

I hope to post my elegy here in a few days. And I hope that the reading of it will make someone’s life better in some way, if only for a moment. 


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