Lament as a Type of Poem
A lament poem takes advantage of a non-narrative structure to convey deep personal feelings of grief or loss. The lament can memorialize a person or place. Since the feelings invoked are universally understood and experienced, laments stand as one of the most durable forms of poetry.
Laments developed within the oral tradition of performance poetry, much like the epic. In fact, early epics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey contain laments that can be extracted and appreciated outside of their original context. The ancient Mesopotamian poem "Beowulf" can be broken down into sections organized around laments. The most famous of these is the final lament for Beowulf himself in lines 3137 to 3182. Laments are also present in the Hindu Vedas and the Christian Old Testament. Many ancient laments, such as those present in the Book of Psalms, invoke the mercy of the divine to assuage a great grief.
Laments in the Romantic Era
Romantic poets such as William Blake used the lament to showcase the limits of language. In a typical Romantic lament, the writer would pose a series of unanswerable questions to invoke the sense of inexpressibly deep despair. Blake’s "The Book of Thel" provides a classic example of this technique. Another example is Percy Shelley’s “A Lament,” which centers around the question, “O World! O Life! O Time!/When will return the glory of your prime?”
The lament continues as a viable form for contemporary poets. While much contemporary poetry concerns itself with experiments in form, the lament provides poets with an opportunity to express the deeply felt and personal. William Carlos WIlliams' famous lament, “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime,” uses the form to communicate the permanent, ever-renewing nature of grief for a lost husband. Thom Gunn’s “Lament” concerns itself with the stress that accompanies the anticipation of grief, as the speaker watches a terminally ill loved one sink into the mire of sickness and death.
Similarities to Other Forms
The lament bears several similarities to other forms of poetry, namely the dirge and the elegy. The dirge is a deeply mournful song traditionally sung at a funeral. Like ancient laments in the oral tradition, a dirge would have been performed with music. Christina Rossetti’s “A Dirge” provides a useful example. Like a dirge, an elegy is a poem written specifically to commemorate someone’s death. However, an elegy would be read aloud without the accompaniment of music. Like a lament, an elegy must express feelings of grief or upset. Herman Melville’s “The Martyr” provides a striking example of an elegy.
Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.