threnody (plural threnodies)
Etymology: Greek thrēnōidia, from thrēnos dirge + aeidein to sing
: a song of lamentation for the dead
I have always liked Emerson. I don't always understand his writing and oftentimes I need a bit of academic help in digging out the details of the meaning, but I often turn back to reading Emerson. Sometime in the last year or so of Nathan's life I ran across the Emerson poem Threnody. Threnody is very much a lament and attempt to dig out some type of meaning in the death of Emerson's five year-old son, Waldo. I've read it several times now. It is a long piece and the language is a bit tough for me. Sometimes I don't make it all the way through in one reading. On some attempts I don't make it through because of emotions. On other attempts I think too hard about the meaning and my head begins to hurt. Over time and reading I was able to discern and take away an understanding of the various parts of the poem, although I could never have articulated them until reading something from a paper I found online.
I wish it was as easy as lifting the conclusions of this great thinker whom I admire and making them my own, but it isn't. There is no short cut through grief. As I am reminded in a new song by a favorite band of mine, "The best way out of hell is through the other side". Emerson seems to have made it through his hell and found a type of peace with his loss. In the end, I think it is likely the only type of peace one can make with the loss of a child. It can't be overcome, it has to be made a part of yourself that you can tolerate and live with. It isn't an easy process and that is what I like about the poem. I get a sense of the Emerson's journey with grief. It isn't my journey. Everyone's is obviously different, but the similarities are clear and since I don't have the tools to articulate my journey, I point myself and anyone that reads this to his.
The text of Threnody.
Excerpts taken from "Emerson: Death and Growth", Stephen Barnes (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale).
To conclude, then, allow me to offer a brief reading of Emerson’s poem "Threnody," written as a lamentation on Waldo’s death, which I believe encapsulates many, if not all, of the above themes. The first part of the poem is a questioning. It is the work of Power seeking to understand. Emerson cries out to Nature to heal his son as it heals itself through the ongoing process of seasonal renewal. But he knows this cannot be: "Nature, who lost, cannot remake him," and he writes that, "Fate let him fall."
Emerson continues, bemoaning that he misses the sights and sounds of Waldo’s presence. The loss, however, is always the fault of the world: "Perchance not he but Nature ailed, / The world and not the infant failed." Perhaps Waldo’s genius was too much for the world; perhaps he "Brought the old order into doubt / His beauty once their beauty tried."
It may well be the case that Waldo’s Power was too great. He questioned the Form of the world through his beauty, energy, and activity. He, for Emerson, caused the balance between Form and Power to waiver. The battle, the chase threatened to come to an end. Unable to bear this possible end, the world caused Waldo’s end. In effect, he was simply too great to be supported by this mortal realm.
In the second half of the poem, the "deep Heart" answers Emerson. He is not to learn from past "tutors" but from the "joyful eye" of Waldo. The beauty of his son gives him fresh insight, a new life, in much the same way as the Christ of Scripture, "Mary’s Son, Boy Rabbi, Israel’s paragon."
Waldo, thus, has not truly left. He remains present in Emerson’s being; he is one with Emerson’s deep Heart. Furthermore, Death acted as a healer. Otherwise, Waldo’s beauty and genius would have been too much for the world, destroying all its limitations: "My servant Death, with solving rite, / Pours finite into infinite."
So despite the fact that the need for Nature’s limitations (such as his son’s disease) caused Waldo’s death, Emerson is told not to close himself off to the world: "Wilt though not ope thy heart to know / What rainbows teach, and sunsets show?"
We have no reason to despair because the world, or Nature, or Fate is "Not of adamant and gold" but is of warm, flowing, organic being. It changes and grows, "Built of furtherance and pursuing, / Not of spent deeds, but of doing."
In this way, the world and Emerson are always in process, regrowing, and recreating themselves. His suffering is thus not overcome, but rather folded into him, allowing Emerson to transcend the absurdity of his condition through the salvific powers of continuity with his past. He no longer strives to feel and forget – in other words, to overcome. Rather, he grows, embracing the horror of his loss as inseparable from his new life, in all of its wounded possibility.