“Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend; / nor even the jobsworth slob / with a slow sly scheme to rob / my darling of her mind / that I imagined; / just a tumour.”-Christopher Reid, “The Unfinished”, from A Scattering
Christopher Reid’s A Scattering is a moving tribute to his wife Lucinda, who died of cancer. A respected English poet recommended it to me after reading my piece contrasting Douglass Dunn and Donald Hall, both of whom also wrote elegies under very similar circumstances. In addition to fine poems, in this book I also found certain insights into how a culture grieves, and what it considers good art.
Whereas Douglass Dunn’s elegies take root in his working-class background, Reid signals his place in the upper class early on in the book when, on the island of Crete, he invokes “ghosts of old schoolmasters” whose lessons, in his mouth, have become, “scraps of misremembered Classical Greek.”
In The Daily Telegraph, a periodical more typically aligned with those who studied Classics as school, Tom Payne assessed, “It is a collection that defies criticism in two ways — first, because it feels wrong to pick over such poignant elegies, and also, because so many of these poems are impossible to fault.” What makes this book seem flawless to this particular slice of Britain — and especially when the topic is such a difficult one?
Two elements more common in American expressions of grief are entirely off limits to Reid: invoking religious faith, and outpouring emotion. Instead, educated fascination with the world, and particularly the natural world, takes the place of religion; and self-consciousness and self-deprecation take the place of emotive self-expression.