Learn English » English Literature » Poem 'A Requiem' by Elizabeth Jennings


A Requiem

It is the ritual not the fact
That brings a held emotion to
Its breaking-point. This man I knew
Only a little, by his death
Shows me a love I thought I lacked
And all the stirrings underneath.

It is the calm, the solemn thing,
Not the distracted mourner’s cry
Or the cold place where dead things lie,
That teaches me I cannot claim
To stand aside. These tears which sting –
Are they from sorrow or from shame?

Analysis

A Requiem by Elizabeth Jennings is a short poem that muses on a common experience that may not be easily understood or acknowledged. It is the situation where a person attending a funeral often feels sad and grieved to a degree that is uncalled for, considering the actual love or attachment to the person when he/she was living. The poet says that such a phenomenon occurs due to the nature of the ritual of burial itself.

Summary

The poet is obviously recounting an experience at a funeral. She points out that it was the ritual of burying the dead body, grieving, the ceremony itself with its attendant prayers and gestures, that made her feel sad. Even though the poet did not feel any love for the man who is now dead, at his funeral she discovers herself mourning for him, evidence of love that she was sure she did not have (a love I thought I lacked). In essence, it was the ritual of burying and saying last rites that aroused the emotion of grieving in her, not the love for the person.

In the second stanza, the poet says that it is the solemnity of the ritual itself that, paradoxically, arouses the emotion in the attending people: not anyone crying or “cold place where dead things lie” – the grave itself. The poet closes with a question addressed to no one in particular: “These tears which sting –/ Are they from sorrow or from shame?” In other words, the poet is musing whether her tears are actually from sorrow at the death of the person, or feeling ashamed about the lack of real feeling for the person. The question is whether her tears are induced just by the ritual or by actual feeling for the person.

Language and imagery

A requiem is a song sung at the funeral of someone. It is a fitting title for the poem since the poet talks about funeral and its rituals in it.

The poem is written in two stanzas of six lines each. It has very little rhyming in it, though the fourth and the sixth line endings do rhyme. The poem employs many terms in opposition to each other in meaning and connotation: “held” and “breaking point”, “calm” and “distracted”, “cold place” and “tears”. These are aligned to the theme of the poem, which is paradoxical in itself, since it is solemnity that induces emotions, according to the poem.

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