Introduction
In the early modern period, so the story goes, people loved to talk
about death; they relished the opportunity to give the grim reaper
his due, commemorating human mortality in ritual, song, and
speech. Only in the modern period, historians contend, does
talk of death begin to recede. With the post- Enlightenment rise
of secularism and waning of religious influence, death became
so terrifying that it could no longer be articulated. “When people
started fearing death in earnest, they stopped talking about it,”
Philippe Ariès famously observes of the early nineteenth century,
the period in which, for the first time in history, cultural anxieties
about death “crossed the threshold into the unspeakable, the in-
expressible.”1
And yet, as the many elegies discussed in this book demon-
strate, people did not in fact fall silent in the face of a depersonal-
ized and dehumanized death. Rather they began speaking about
the dead in new and increasingly creative ways. Poetry in particu-
lar, in response to the social decline of death, concentrated on re-
viving the dead through the vitalizing properties of speech. At the
very moment in history that death merely appears to vanish from
the public stage, the dying start manically versifying and the sur-
viving begin loudly memorializing. Even the dead commence chat-
tering away in poetry, as if to give the lie to modernity’s premature
proclamation of death’s demise.
This book explores modern poetry’s fascination with pre-
mortem and postmortem speech. Focusing primarily on American
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