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Heavenly Hurt: The Joy and Value of Sad Poetry



Just as one may wonder why we should enjoy watching tragic plays and movies, listening to ‘sad’ music, or looking at ‘ugly’ pictures, we might also ask what joy is to be had, and why, in reading lines such as Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief, / More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring. Comforter, where, where is your comforting? / Mary mother of us, where is your relief?’1 Or consider the first two quatrains of this sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay: Time does not bring relief; you all have lied Who told me time would ease me of my pain! I miss him in the weeping of the rain; I want him at the shrinking of the tide; The old snows melt from every mountain-side, And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane; But last year’s bitter loving must remain Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.2
10.1 Introduction: why should we enjoy and
value sad poetry?
Just as one may wonder why we should enjoy watching tragic plays and
movies, listening to ‘sad’ music, or looking at ‘ugly’ pictures, we might
also ask what joy is to be had, and why, in reading lines such as Gerard
Manley Hopkins’s ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief, /
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring. Comforter, where,
where is your comforting? / Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?’
1 Or
consider the first two quatrains of this sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
Assuming Millay is speaking in her own voice, why should I care about
her heartbreak? I never met her personally; she died more than half a
century ago; this pain, too, is no more. Assuming she is speaking in
the voice of an invented poetic persona, then it seems I have even less
reason to be touched, for this is, in effect, nobody’s heartbreak. Yet I
wonder if as readers (or listeners) we focus on Millay herself and look to
get further specifics about her heartbreak as we go through the poem, or
imagine some fictitious persona and come to feel for her .
Heavenly Hurt: The Joy and Value
of Sad Poetry
Anna Christina Ribeiro
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Heavenly Hurt: The Joy and Value of Sad Poetry 187
Poets can be a gloomy bunch. Arthur Rimbaud’s most famous work
is called A Season in Hell ; Charles Baudelaire is known for his Flowers of
Evil ; and Florbela Espanca’s first foray into poetry was called The Book
of Sorrows . The confessional poetry that came decades later was not an
improvement on the cheerfulness scale. Neither is this a modern malaise.
Much lyric poetry was already sad in ancient times; the desire to give
expression to heartbreak, anguish, sorrow, and despair has a long history.
Here is Sappho, 2,600 years ago: ‘Pain penetrates / Me drop / By Drop’.
Yet, de sp it e th e m elan ch ol y t ha t te em s fro m c ou nt le ss l yr ic po em s p as t
and present (it being understood that not all lyric poetry is sad), we often
greatly enjoy, and deeply value, reading or listening to them. We would
not want our world to be without sad poetry; we think it is the better for
having it. So, on the assumption that those of us who relish and value
sad poems are not suffering from some psychological disorder, we would
do well to understand better this very human proclivity.
I here offer three reasons to explain this phenomenon, which we may
call the paradox of negative emotions in the case of lyric poetry or, more
succinctly, the paradox of the sad lyric (the epic and dramatic forms
of poetry will not be discussed here). The first is that we often derive
pleasure from the sound arrangement produced by formal poetic devices
such as rhyme, alliteration, and meter, independently of the meanings
of the words used. The second is that poetic tropes such as similes and
metaphors promote a cognitive pleasure consequent on the manner
in which they expand our understanding of the words in them. The
third reason emerges from the first-person voice of lyric poetry, which
promotes a phenomenon I call ‘poetic appropriation’, where we take a
poet’s words as if they were our own. By virtue of being written in the
first person and thereby promoting a personal engagement akin to iden-
tification with the thoughts and emotions expressed in the work, sad
lyric poetry has a therapeutic value that helps explain the satisfaction
we take in it. To be sure, alliteration and rhyme, figures of speech, and
the use of the first person can and do all occur in other contexts, literary
and otherwise. But when they come together in the sad lyric poem, their
conjoined powers can bring about a profoundly pleasing and beneficial
effect in listeners or readers.
10.2 Enjoying the depiction of other-related pain: the
paradox of tragedy
Philosophers of art have long discussed the problem of emotional engage-
ment with tragic characters, what today is referred to as the ‘paradox of
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188 Anna Christina Ribeiro
tragedy’. The puzzle, they say, is that, of their own free will, people go
to theatres and cinemas, and open up books, to see other people suffer.
Moreover, they enjoy such activities. Indeed, the more moved they are
by the suffering depicted, the more enjoyable they claim the experi-
ence to have been, and the better and more valuable they find the work
that thus moved them. As David Hume put it, ‘It seems an unaccount-
able pleasure which the spectators of a well-written tragedy receive from
sorrow, terror, anxiety, and other passions, that are in themselves disa-
greeable and uneasy. The more they are touched and affected, the more
are they delighted with the spectacle.’
Many attempts have been made to shed some light on this problem
and make coherent this apparent inconsistency in our behaviour and
experience. Some of them take their inspiration from Aristotle and
his notion of catharsis, according to which we are relieved of the very
emotions aroused by the tragic work by the either cleansing or trans-
formational effect the tragedy has upon those emotions.
5 Others, like
Hume, focus on the artistry employed by the tragedian, including not
only the skilled use of rhetorical devices but also the manner of presen-
tation of the tragic events and characters. According to Hume, together
these not only offer a positive countervailing weight to the negative
emotions but, by the power of their effect, absorb those emotions
and convert them into something pleasurable.
6 Still others find that
the reason for our enjoyment of tragedy is to be found in what it says
about us: according to Susan Feagin, the fact that we are moved by the
plight of others, even if they are fictional, is a sign of our deep ‘common
humanity’ and a reflection of our basic moral decency: ‘We find ourselves
to be the kind of people who respond negatively to villainy, treachery,
and injustice.’
7 This recognition promotes a pleasure that compensates
for the displeasure we feel for the tragic events themselves.
A more recent view
8 addresses itself not specifically to the paradox
of tragedy, but to our responses to emotionally difficult literature in
general, taking inspiration from Edward Bullough’s notion of ‘psychical
9 Bullough argued that in order to appreciate a threatening situ-
ation (real or fictional) aesthetically, one had to create the right sort of
distance from it, ‘coping with the situation by focusing on a nonthreat-
ening aspect of it’.
10 Jenefer Robinson argues that various literary devices
used by authors generate the distance necessary for aesthetic enjoyment
by distracting us from emotionally difficult material with beautiful
language and imagery, or by intellectualizing and rationalizing it, or by
pointing to a moral.
11 On this view, literary devices are ‘coping mecha-
nisms’, in various ways distracting us from material that we may find
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Heavenly Hurt: The Joy and Value of Sad Poetry 189
‘uncomfortable’, ‘disturbing’, or ‘even threatening’ in a literary work:
‘They help to redirect attention and to change our conceptions of or
beliefs about the content so that it becomes less painful ... so that we are
less saddened or disturbed by otherwise troubling content.’
One may rightly ask, and Robinson does, ‘Why not avoid unpleasant-
ness altogether? Why take time to engage with threatening material at
all?’ Her answer is that ‘highly charged material is highly engrossing,
and it is useful for various reasons to get practice in dealing with it’. This
may be true (although we are not told why or how), but we may also ask
why we should wish to be, or enjoy being, distracted from the very works
with which we willingly chose to engage. As stated, the view proposes
that enjoyment of painful literary material proceeds from detachment
from, rather than engagement with, the emotions expressed in the
work. More specifically, the function of literary devices is to distract and
thereby defend us from the very emotions that the work is seeking to
elicit in us.
I do not think that the idea of ‘defensive reading’ and its accompa-
nying notions of distraction, rationalization, or intellectualization quite
capture what is going on in our enjoyment of works where the suffering
of others is depicted (namely, tragedies), but, closer to our concerns, it
would make even less intelligible our enjoyment of works where the
suffering is expressed in the first person.
13 As I hope to show, one of
the reasons a sad poem may be enjoyable lies precisely in its giving us
a vehicle to express our own thoughts and feelings. In that case, if the
vehicle drives us away from those thoughts and feelings, it is taking us
down the wrong path and not serving its own purpose.
10.3 Enjoying the expression of self-related pain: the
paradox of the sad lyric
However successful these and other solutions to the paradox of tragedy
may be, we must now distinguish that problem from the topic at
hand. For the paradox of tragedy is an issue about emotions that are
other-directed, that is, emotions that are directed at characters in a story.
It is only because these are emotions directed at others that adverting to
our moral feelings, for instance, is a reasonable answer to the paradox.
Moreover, because the suffering depicted is that of others, solutions to
the paradox of tragedy always involve some compensatory or counter-
vailing feature to the suffering.
14 But the lyric poem, it seems, does not
invite us to feel about others at all, and this makes all the difference.
When we listen to, or more typically, in our now primarily written
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Heavenly Hurt: The Joy and Value of Sad Poetry 191
process of coming to recognize, understand, and perhaps overcome
painful emotions involves putting our feelings into words, then finding
those words in the verse of another provides a ready-made vehicle for
the expression of our own thoughts and feelings. By virtue of being
written in the first person and thereby promoting a personal engage-
ment akin to identification
15 with the thoughts and emotions expressed
in the work, sad lyric poetry has a therapeutic value that helps explain
the satisfaction we take in it and the value we accord it. This will be
developed in Section 10.6. Section 10.7 will be devoted to some ques-
tions raised by the view presented here, to be followed in Section 10.8
by a review of its conclusions.
10.4 Phonetic enjoyment: patterned sounds
Let us see first how the sound techniques employed by poets can help
explain the pleasure we take in sad poetry. Here is another example:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas’s famous poem, written for his dying father, follows
the villanelle form: we are caught up in this powerful swirl with only
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192 Anna Christina Ribeiro
two rhymes, the one involving the ‘night’ of the first line, and the
other involving the ‘day’ of the second line, in a simple a-b-a scheme
throughout, except for the extra a of the last line. Night and day dance
about in each stanza, with the middle line always ending in ‘-ay’, and
flanked by the other rhyme; in other words, with ‘day’ always preceded
and followed by ‘night’. No matter how much ‘day’ tries to re-emerge in
every stanza, the closing lines are final: the ‘night’ rhyme asserts itself
twice, locking it out conclusively.
Notice how I have mentioned nothing yet of the other words in
the poem, only the two words at the end of the first two lines in the
poem. And yet, by being placed in the beginning of the poem and at
the end of those first two lines, we are immediately invited to compare
and contrast them – indeed, ‘invite’ is even too gentle; the poem forces
that comparison upon us and keeps it alive throughout by virtue of the
rhyming scheme. So here we have sound and sense working together
expertly. But more importantly with respect to sound, there is some-
thing pleasing about the regular phonetic repetition itself, irrespective
of the meaning of the words. That children can enjoy nursery rhymes
they do not understand, that people can enjoy songs in languages they
do not know, that we can all enjoy music without words, is more than
enough evidence that we can and do enjoy patterned sound, whether or
not the sounds are semantically meaningful to us.
The meter of the poem is iambic, but it is not regular (the pentameter,
however, is flawless; the poem is in decasyllable throughout). The first
line, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, sets the tone by being
mostly regular, so regular that indeed it is as gentle as a lullaby, but the
third line breaks that regularity in the cry to his father to ‘Rage, rage
against the dying of the light’. The cry is repeated every other stanza,
until it is repeated twice, that is, in the last two stanzas. What does that
say? Imagine that Dylan Thomas could instead have used ‘Do not go
gentle into that good night’ as that repeating line (of course, pretend
for a moment that that would not have violated the form). The effect of
the poem would have been completely different: rather than a forceful
and desperate cry to ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’, we would
have had a sad and resigned plea, ‘Do not go gentle into that good
night’. In one case, I see Thomas, by his father’s deathbed, shaking him
by his arms and crying for him not to die; in the other, I see Thomas
holding his father’s hand and, looking down and crying in resignation,
uttering the second line.
The iambic meter is also the most natural meter in modern English,
and the fact that it fits the prosodic nature of the language is, I think,
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a crucial aspect of what makes its recitation pleasing to the ear it is
the prosody of everyday language made salient. In everyday speech
English speakers already often produce sentences that follow the iamb,
without trying or knowing.
17 Having that made salient by casting nearly
the entire poem in regular iambs produces a pleasure of recognition
one that we need not be consciously aware of in order to feel. It’s like
listening to ourselves speak, only better. As Homer put it in his ‘Hymn
to Delian Apollo’, ‘such is their skill in composing the song / that each
man might think he himself were speaking’.
18 This prosodic recognition
is an important aspect of the pleasure one can take in a poem, and the
decasyllable line contributes to that naturalness by being a common
length of spoken sentences, that is, the number of syllables that we, on
average, ‘get out’ in one breath.
In addition to the iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme,
Thomas’s poem is replete with alliterations and assonances, many of
them involving the letters ‘g’ (both soft and hard) and ‘w’. ‘Wise’ and
‘wild’ men, are both paired with the declarative version of the ‘Do not
go gentle’ line in the second and fourth stanzas (with ‘words’ in line 5
echoing ‘wise’), while ‘good’ and ‘grave’ men are paired with the declar-
ative version of ‘Rage, rage’ in the third and fifth (these lines are in the
imperative in the opening and the closing stanzas, when the speaker is
directly addressing his father). ‘Go’ and ‘gentle’ in the first line establish
the hard and soft versions of ‘g’ that will recur throughout the poem:
‘age’, ‘rage’ (an internal rhyme, drawing further attention to it), ‘against’,
‘green’, ‘grieved’, ‘grave’ (which alliterate on the first two consonants),
and ‘gay’. These formal features are certainly less noticeable than the
rhyme schemes, but no less pleasing for being at a less conscious level
of auditory perception (and perhaps all the more pleasing, cognitively
speaking, when we bring them to the fore and are thus made aware of
the poet’s skill in pairing linguistic sounds, and in aligning them with
significant meanings). They work surreptitiously, so to speak, to rein-
force a phonetic pattern. Why we should enjoy phonetic patterning is
certainly a question; that we do so there is no doubt. For this reason, I
would not claim, as Hume does, that the sound patterning in a sad poem
converts the sadness into something pleasurable. Rather, it promotes a
pleasure of its own, irrespective of what is being said. And, as will be
argued later, the sadness of a sad lyric is not something we wish to dissi-
pate, but rather something we wish to live through. If anything, the
patterning reinforces or intensifies that sadness.
An important part of the pleasure we take in any poem, therefore,
whether lyric or not, whether sad or happy, lies in the musicality
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194 Anna Christina Ribeiro
inherent in it. That musicality is in turn based on organized phonetic
repetition, whether of particular sounds at the end of a word at the end
of a line, at the beginning of a word somewhere within the line, of more
abstract ‘beats’ as in stressed syllables, and so on, all within the length
required by our lung capacity. This enjoyment, then, is not something
peculiar to the sad lyric, but a feature of poetry in general that also plays
a role here. And as with other kinds of poetry, it will also have an effect
on our enjoyment and evaluation of the poem: where the musicality is
not enjoyed, the poem as a whole will suffer. It is important to note that
musicality is not necessarily absent from poems that are not written in
traditional forms (‘free verse’), although it is often the case that, as with
music, the less repetition there is, the less patterning there is, and so the
less musicality. Poems composed in this manner thus leave out, or at
least hamstring, one dimension of our enjoyment of the poetic art.
10.5 Semantic enjoyment: prolific meanings
So much for the ‘sound effects’ in this poem, although, as I hope to have
made evident, sound often contributes to sense. If we now focus on
meaning proper, we may note the many metaphors in this short poem.
Most of them are what we may call ‘verbal’ metaphors: where the word
transferred from its typical use to qualify another is not a noun, as in
‘Juliet is the sun’, but a verb, as in ‘old age should burn and rave’, ‘words
fork’, ‘deeds dance’ (brightly, and in a green bay, no less), blind eyes
‘blaze’ (like meteors), and wild men ‘caught and sang the sun’. We may
also note that the deeds are ‘frail’, the sight is ‘blinding’, the tears are
‘fierce’; let us call these adjectival metaphors. How does old age, some-
thing abstract, ‘burn and rave’? How can deeds be frail? How can they
dance? How can words fork anything, much less lightning? We might
not have heard these things referred to in such ways before encoun-
tering this poem, and most likely not after, either, and yet, novel and
unique as they are, we are able to make at least some sense of them. Of
course, it is true that the line between metaphor and literal meaning is
not so easily demarcated. Why, for instance, did I remark on the lines
that mention the day closing or the light dying? Because, in current
usage, days close and light dies without much of a metaphorical fuss.
What is not happening here is what is happening in the previous, robust
metaphors, namely, what Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber call, in their
Relevance Theory: Cognition and Communication , an expansion of our
‘encyclopedic entries’ for the concepts involved.
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According to relevance theory, our minds ‘store’ concepts in various
interconnected ways. Concepts in turn collect information in three
ways: lexical, logical, and encyclopedic. A concept’s lexical entry indi-
cates the word or phrase in natural language corresponding to that
concept. The encyclopedic entry ‘contains information about the exten-
sion and/or denotation of the concept: that is, about the objects, events
and/or properties which instantiate it’; finally, the concept enters into
logical forms, and thus there must be rules governing its behaviour
within those forms: the logical entry contains a set of deductive rules.
Speakers share the logical entries attached to a conceptual address and,
when speakers share a natural language, the lexical entries as well. The
encyclopedic entry, however, is peculiar to an individual, containing all
that the individual believes to be the case about that concept. Naturally,
encyclopedic entries, while they vary from person to person, must still
overlap to an extent sufficient for communication, and may overlap
considerably. For instance, we all here share the concept of [COW], but
we have different lexical entries for it: vaca, vache, корова [karôva], 
[bakará], and so on. In Hindi, however, not only do they call it ‘gai’,
their lexical entry for [COW], they have a rather different encyclopedic
entry for it. While for most of us a cow is a grazing animal we eat, for
most of them a cow is a sacred animal they worship and would never
What occurs when someone tells me that frail deeds dance brightly
in a green bay is that I am invited to expand my encyclopedic entries
for the given concepts; in this case, especially for the concepts of ‘deed’
and ‘dance’, by virtue of their being qualified in unusual ways. The same
goes for the ways in which we are invited to think of Thomas’s father.
For most of us, our encyclopedic entries for him are very thin indeed,
since we did not know his father. So placing him alongside grave, good,
wise, and wild men as ideals for his father to emulate is a way of filling
in our entry for him.
Why should expanding our encyclopedic entries for concepts we
already possess give us pleasure? I think part of the answer can already
be found in Aristotle, who opens his Metaphysics with the claim that all
human beings by nature desire to know, and that acquiring new knowl-
edge is something pleasurable in itself. However, I think the manner in
which we acquire this new knowledge in poetry is something that adds
to that pleasure as well. Relevance theory can help us here also. The rele-
vance theory of discourse is basically a reduction of H. P. Grice’s several
‘conversational maxims’ to one: Be Relevant .
21 In other words, say no
more than what is needed for me to understand you. More importantly,
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196 Anna Christina Ribeiro
there is, on the part of the hearer, an assumption of relevance: I expect the
linguistic string I am required to process to result in what Sperber and
Wilson call ‘contextual effects’; it should tell me something. Moreover,
as the authors put it, ‘The assessment of relevance, like the assessment of
productivity, is a matter of balancing output against input: here contex-
tual effects against processing effort’.
22 So, if it is true that speakers seek
to make their contributions as relevant as possible, and hearers assume
the contextual relevance of what they hear, then when something
unusual occurs – say, a word or a sound is repeated – hearers will assume
that optimal relevance is still at work. If those repetitions require more
processing effort, on this view hearers should tacitly assume that the
effort will be repaid with greater contextual effects.
This is precisely what poetic techniques produce. Without stating
anything explicitly, merely by using words that, for example, sound
alike, or by combining them in an unusual or novel manner, a poet may
lead us to consider ways in which the concepts signified by those words
relate to one another, or novel ways in which to consider the concepts
23 As a rule, to get more meaning, we need more words, and
more words require more processing effort. Poetry subverts this typical
feature of language by giving us fewer words, which we would expect
to require less processing effort and therefore give us fewer contex-
tual effects. But the novel or unusual combination at once requires a
stronger effort and takes ‘cognitive cuts’; if the result works (some meta-
phors are banal, or fall flat), we get more contextual effects, quickly, and
this, I claim, we experience as cognitively pleasurable. Poets, then, take
the economic spirit of relevance theory to its limit, since they convey
more with fewer words. The pleasure here, as in other areas of life, is
that of getting more for less: fewer words, by virtue of being combined
in novel ways, engender a greater and faster expansion of our ‘ency-
clopedic entries’ than more words combined in the usual ways would
have. Perhaps this is yet another reason why paraphrasing poems feels
so unsatisfactory: the paraphrase does away with the ‘kick’ of getting
more for less, and faster.
As was the case with the auditory pleasure we may take in the phonetic
patterning of poems, the cognitive pleasure taken in poetic tropes is
also not unique to the sad lyric. Rather, tropes are a typical feature
of sad poems that adds to the pleasure we take in them, but that are
pleasurable in themselves, and that occur elsewhere. When they occur
in sad poems (and they nearly always do), they add another dimension,
a cognitive one, that may enhance the pleasure we take in the work.
As is the case with phonetic patterning, poets who do not make use of
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Heavenly Hurt: The Joy and Value of Sad Poetry 197
this typical dimension of poems that in itself promotes a special kind of
enjoyment are depriving their works of a significant artistic feature, and
their readers of a level of aesthetic and cognitive enjoyment.
10.6 Content enjoyment: therapeutic effects
All the sound effects and novel metaphors in the world would be of
little use, and engender little satisfaction, if they did not accompany
content that is meaningful to us. The poetic schemes and tropes of sad
lyric poems contribute in at least the ways outlined above to making the
thoughts and feelings expressed in them more forceful, moving, expan-
sive, and so on. But those thoughts and feelings must resonate with us,
and here another ‘technique’, if one may call it that, used by poets to
help that along is their use of the first person. Moving on now to the
third and final aspect of our solution to the apparent incongruity mani-
fest by our enjoying poems that are sad, how does their being written
in the first person affect our engagement with such poems? Specific to
our concerns, how does it promote the therapeutic satisfaction I claim
chiefly explains the pleasure we take in them?
As I have argued in previous work, when a poet expresses herself in
the first person, I am invited to engage with her poem in the first person
as well, that is, in my own person.
24 In other words, when a poem is
written in the first person, as lyric poems are, it automatically places the
reader or listener in the position of the speaker. Poets themselves often
remark on this feature of lyric poetry; recall the passage from Homer’s
hymn quoted earlier. More contemporarily, here is the Portuguese poet
Florbela Espanca:
Strange book that you wrote,
Poet of longing and of suffering;
Strange book in which you put
All I feel and cannot say!
It is as if I leafed through my soul!
The book you gave me is mine, and psalms
The prayers I cry and laugh and sing!
When poems are written in the first person, whether explicitly or implic-
itly (i.e., by leaving out the pronoun or corresponding first-person conju-
gation in languages where the verb conjugation indicates the person
speaking), we are invited to ‘try those words on’, so to speak, and see
if they fit us. In Espanca’s poem, we have the very poem remarking on
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198 Anna Christina Ribeiro
this practice, and with respect to sad poems in particular: a poem whose
words we may ‘take on’ in order to affirm that we do indeed ‘take on’
the words in such poems.
Sad poems that speak to our state of mind can thus give voice to our
thoughts and feelings, and when they do, we ‘appropriate’ them as if
they were our own: perhaps we underline a poem in a book; perhaps we
copy it out; perhaps we post it on our refrigerators; perhaps we post it
on Facebook. We claim it as being expressive of something we feel. As I
have described it elsewhere:
When listening to or reading a poem, we begin by hearing someone
else’s voice, by attending to what the poetic persona might have to
share with us ... typically, by the end of the poem we have come to
identify with that voice. I do not mean by this that we suddenly come
to think that we are the poet, or that we are the writers of the poem.
I mean an identification in the sense that we feel that we could have
written those words (if only we had the talent to express ourselves as
well), because they express something that we, too, feel or have felt,
think or have thought, and sometimes even thoughts and feelings
we never realized we had but that now, seeing them expressed, we
find resonating with something within ourselves. Our experience of
lyric poems is therefore peculiarly personal ... we are not being told
a story, objectively, of what happened to whom and how they felt,
but instead a very personal account of how one felt, in a way that
invites us to recognize similar feelings or experiences or thoughts in
The question emerges again: If this is how we experience lyric poems,
why should it give us any pleasure? I will offer three reasons that, I
believe, are at least part of the answer.
The first has to do with the simple fact that the poem gives voice to
my feelings and thoughts, which may be hard for me to express while
I am having those feelings and thoughts (‘All I feel and cannot say!’).
This alone can be experienced with a sense of relief; we may say that
the words of the poem take some of that weight that was within me
and place it outside, a sensation nicely encapsulated in the idiomatic
English expression ‘getting it off your chest’. The sad lyric provides a
ready-made vehicle for my feelings and thoughts, and may, in addition,
help me understand them better, by expanding on their significance
and drawing connections I was unable to see.
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Heavenly Hurt: The Joy and Value of Sad Poetry 199
The second has to do with validation of my experience and state of
mind. When I encounter a poem that expresses what I feel, I see that I
am not just imagining things, or that this is the first time this particular
experience happens to anyone, or that I am odd, or that my situation is
sui generis. Finding that others have had more or less the same experi-
ence, felt and thought more or less the same things, puts a stamp of
existential approval upon them. This, I think, is an emotional reward,
but also a cognitive one, for it tells me that I was assessing my situation
in a way that resonates elsewhere; whether or not that is in fact true, it
makes me feel that I am not being unreasonable or peculiar in thinking
and feeling in the way that I do.
Finally, the third reason we can enjoy being moved to sadness by sad
lyric poems is that they can help us feel that we belong in this world,
because we feel the way others do or have felt, and we can commune
with them via their words. Sadness is a state that often makes those
in its grip feel alienated from the world: suddenly nothing seems to
make sense; suddenly the familiar seems foreign; suddenly the people
closest to us seem like strangers who do not understand us and whom
we do not understand. The sad lyric can be pleasing precisely because,
in helping us dwell in our thoughts and feelings for a while, it helps us
recognize them, understand them, accept them. Importantly, it helps us
see ourselves in another, and another in ourselves, and in that process
we may slowly come back to the world, so to speak, and gradually reverse
the alienation created by our earlier distress.
A famous example of poetry being therapeutically helpful in this way
is that of John Stuart Mill, who recovered from his nervous breakdown
at the age of twenty by reading Coleridge and Wordsworth. In the fifth
chapter of his Autobiography , Mill writes that in Coleridge’s writings he
found ‘a true description of what [he] felt’, and that the following lines
‘exactly describe [his] case’:
A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear,
A drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet or relief
In word, or sigh, or tear.
Later, referring to Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’, Mill
writes, ‘I found that he too had had similar experience to mine; that he
also had felt that the first freshness of youthful enjoyment of life was
not lasting; but that he had sought for compensation, and found it, in
the way in which he was now teaching me to find it.’
28 Like Espanca just
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200 Anna Christina Ribeiro
over a century later, Wordsworth too seems to refer to finding respite
and strength in another’s words when he writes, in the ode to which
Mill refers, ‘To me alone there came a thought of grief: / A timely utter-
ance gave that thought relief, / And I again am strong.’
The search for solace in poetry is not unique to Mill. One need not
search far to find reports of people held hostage
30 or as prisoners of war
who turned to poetry, quite literally, to keep alive. Writer Alice Sebold
reports on this inclination to turn to poetry in difficult times:
Briefly, in the wake of 9/11 a poetry renaissance occurred, as – clueless
about how to survive the hopelessness that immediately followed
many of us turned to poems written in the wake of the world wars for
succor. Something in the way that Siegfried Sassoon or W. H. Auden
could bend the atrocities of the trenches or the invasion of Poland
into lyric form and reflect ourselves back to ourselves gave us hope at
that time. Often a reflection in the mirror, even if hideously accurate,
stands as confirmation of existence, and this mere confirmation then
serves as hope – we are still alive in dark times.
It is interesting that we naturally do this. Nobody tells us to. Whether
interested in literature or not, people often turn to poems in trying
times. Not so much to other forms of literature, or other forms of art
(with the possible exception of music). It is as if we felt a great need
to find a way to say something we need to say and do not know how.
It is as if we sought some explanation for our circumstances, and were
asking, ‘Please, show me to myself; please, give me voice.’
Sad lyric poems, then, that speak to us in our moments of grief, give
us the formal space in which to feel the emotions that may yet be form-
less within us. For this reason, and unlike what occurs in the paradox of
tragedy, an explanation for why we may find joy in them cannot be one
that involves distancing mechanisms or compensatory effects. Rather, it
must account for our relishing the very living through those emotions, for
our seeking and finding a reflection in the mirror provided by the words.
While the first two reasons offered here explain some of the pleasures
promoted by some sad poems, it is this third reason that most crucially
accounts for why we enjoy being moved by sad lines, and why doing so
is a deeply valued part of the human experience. The first two reasons are
also important, however, and the fact, if it is one, that we tend to turn to
poets who are more or less contemporary with us (as in the case of Mill
and the one reported by Sebold), lends support to the idea that we must
be able to relate both to the sound patterning and to the metaphors and
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Heavenly Hurt: The Joy and Value of Sad Poetry 201
other figures of speech employed in a poem in order to fully enjoy it. A
poem that is too far from us in time would, as a rule, have a corresponding
difficulty reaching us across the centuries: Edmund Spenser’s ‘Lyke as a
ship that through the ocean wyde’ may be comforting enough, but it takes
a greater empathetic leaping by the reader or listener than is required by
Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s ‘I lift my heavy heart up solemnly’ or Anna
Akhmatova’s ‘No, it is not I, it is someone else who is suffering.’
10.7 Dispelling some difficulties
Though Mill is an excellent example of the therapeutic thesis here
defended, it is also in his Autobiography that we find what appears to be
a counter-example to it:
In the worst period of my depression, I had read through the whole
of Byron (then new to me), to try whether a poet, whose peculiar
department was supposed to be that of the intenser feelings, could
rouse any feeling in me. As might be expected, I got no good from
this reading, but the reverse. The poet’s state of mind was too like
my own. His was the lament of a man who had worn out all pleas-
ures, and who seemed to think that life, to all who possess the good
things of it, must necessarily be the vapid, uninteresting thing which
I found it. His Harold and Manfred had the same burden on them
which I had; and I was not in a frame of mind to desire any comfort
from the vehement sensual passion of his Giaours, or the sullenness
of his Laras.
As described by Mill, what we see in this passage is a case in which
identification, in the sense used here, has gone too far and, rather than
helping, it further harms. Why was Byron too much for Mill to take,
while Coleridge and Wordsworth (whose poetry, incidentally, Byron
34 were just the ticket?
Passing over the many other differences between the works of Byron
that Mill cites and those of Wordsworth and Coleridge, we may note that
those of Byron are all dramatic or narrative poems. In other words, they
are not lyrics written in the first person (a first, generic person rather than
the voice of a character in a story). So, rather than being a counter-ex-
ample to the thesis that sad lyric poems can serve a therapeutic function
by virtue of being written in the first person, Mill’s reaction to Byron’s
work constitutes evidence in its favour: works in the third person and
stories about others simply do not operate on us in the same manner.
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202 Anna Christina Ribeiro
That Mill experienced the states of mind depicted in those works as
too similar to his own, and for that reason unhelpful, is more problem-
atic, since part of the idea I have defended is that the words in the poem
will serve as giving voice to one’s own state of mind. One would then
think that, the more similar, the better. There are many ways to express
the same mental and emotional state, however, and there is no reason
to think that all of them will be equally appealing to a given individual.
Perhaps Byron’s general cynical attitude did not serve as the consola-
tion Mill was seeking; he had wallowed enough in his grief, and was
now seeking a way out, not further indulgence. In such cases, too much
sadness, without hope of relief, may undermine the very aim of solace
by identification.
Sometimes we are not sad, or at least not sad about the same issue
expressed in a sad lyric poem, and yet we enjoy it anyway. Is this a
problem for the view here presented? I do not think so. Certainly we
may enjoy poems that do not speak to our present state of mind, and the
fact that there are three dimensions to any lyric poem that are potential
sources of enjoyment already indicates why this should be. I may well
enjoy the phonetic patterning and/or the intriguing tropes in a poem
without at the same time relating personally to its content. That being
true, I would still claim that our enjoyment is greater when all three
aspects are enjoyed together, in the ways here articulated.
But this points us to yet a third difficulty, a perennial and multifac-
eted difficulty when it comes to poetry, namely, translation. All too
often poetic form does not translate well, and neither do metaphors and
other figures of speech. Moreover, connotations, associations, and allu-
sions may not be recognized, or vary in ways that do not work, or work
against, the meaning found in the original. Yet it goes without saying
that we often do enjoy poems, sad and otherwise, in translation; my
German is not good enough to read Rilke in the original, so I enjoy his
work, and greatly, in the superb translations of Edward Snow. In such
cases, the explanation is the opposite of that offered in the previous
paragraph: here, content must take the lead in promoting enjoyment,
unless the translation is such as to generate its own pleasing poetic form
(as another excellent Rilke translator, Walter Arndt, succeeds in doing),
and the tropes work in the target language, or semantically equivalent
ones are found. As is to be expected, translations will be more successful
in these regards between languages that are closer in kinship: it is easier
to move between German and English, and between Portuguese and
Spanish, than between German and Portuguese.
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Heavenly Hurt: The Joy and Value of Sad Poetry 203
10.8 Conclusion
The enjoyment of lyric poems that are sad appears to be incoherent. Yet,
upon investigation, we find that there are three dimensions to poetry,
namely, phonetic patterning (poetic schemes), prolific meanings (tropes
or figures of speech), and subjective content that are each significant
sources of pleasure: auditory, cognitive, and therapeutic. Because of its
unique features, which differ from those of tragic works, solutions to
the paradox of tragedy are not applicable to the ‘paradox’ of the sad
lyric. Especially because lyrics are written in the first person and there-
fore invite identification with what is expressed in them, the conver-
sionary and compensatory solutions that have been offered to explain
the paradox of tragedy do not work in this case. The third explanation
offered here does have a predecessor in Aristotle’s appeal to catharsis,
however, since it speaks of the therapeutic value of finding the expres-
sion of our feelings in the words of another.
I would like to close with one more example, one that encapsulates
this aspect of poetry particularly well, namely, a passage from Jorge Luis
Borges’s ‘ Arte Poética ’:
A veces en las tardes una cara
Nos mira desde el fondo de un espejo;
El arte debe ser como ese espejo
Que nos revela nuestra propia cara
Borges here says that ‘Art should be like that mirror, that reveals to
us our own face.’ I don’t know that all art should be like a mirror to
ourselves, but I think that the lyric poem certainly can serve that func-
tion, and that when it does so in our most vulnerable moments, it can
serve as a consolation and as an affirmation of ourselves. It can be, in the
words of Emily Dickinson, a heavenly hurt.
36 As is the case with many
oxymorons, when we look closely, we see that it makes perfect sense;
perhaps, like Mill, we begin to find meaning in what is said ‘about the
importance of poetry and art as instruments of human culture’.
1 . Earlier versions of this chapter were delivered as a keynote address at the Fifth
Mediterranean Congress of Aesthetics in Cartagena, Spain (July 2011), at the
Institute Jean Nicod in Paris, France (October 2011) and at the 70th Annual
Meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics in St. Louis, MO (October
2012), under the title ‘The Value of Sad Poetry’. I express my gratitude to my
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204 Anna Christina Ribeiro
audiences at these venues, especially to Francisca Pérez-Carreño and Jérôme
Pelletier for inviting me to Cartagena and Paris respectively, and to Richard
Eldridge for his constructive comments at the ASA Meeting. ‘No worst, there
is none’. M. H. Abrams (ed.), The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The
Major Authors . 5th edn. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962), 2193.
2 . Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950), ‘Time Does Not Bring Relief; You All
Have Lied’, from Selected Poems: The Centenary Edition . Edited with an intro-
duction by Colin Falck (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), 13.
3 . Mary Barnard, Sappho: A New Translation . Foreword by Dudley Fitts (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1958), Fragment 61.
4 . David Hume, 1757. ‘Of Tragedy’, in Selected Essays , (ed.), S. Copley and A.
Edgar, 1993 (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 126.
5 . Aristotle, Poetics , chapter 5, in Rhetoric and Poetics , trans. W. Rhys Roberts and
Ingram Bywater. Introduction by Friedrich Solmsen (New York: The Modern
Library, 1954), 230. For a review and categorization of the many responses to
the paradox of tragedy, see Jerrold Levinson, ‘Emotion in Response to Art: A
Survey of the Terrain’, in Emotion and the Arts , ed. M. Hjort and S. Laver (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 20–34; and reprinted in Levinson’s
Contemplating Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 38–55.
6 . ‘This extraordinary effect proceeds from that very eloquence with which the
melancholy scene is represented. The genius required to paint objects in a
lively manner, the art employed in collecting all the pathetic circumstances,
the judgment displayed in disposing them: the exercise, I say, of these noble
talents, together with the force of expression and beauty of oratorial numbers
[ rhythms ], diffuse the highest satisfaction on the audience, and excite the
most delightful movements. By this means, the uneasiness of the melan-
choly passions is not only overpowered and effaced by something stronger of
an opposite kind, but the whole impulse of those passions is converted into
pleasure, and swells the delight which the eloquence raises in us.’ Hume, ‘Of
Tragedy’, 128–129.
7 . Susan Feagin, ‘The Pleasures of Tragedy’, American Philosophical Quarterly 20
(1983): 95–104, 98.
8 . Jenefer Robinson, ‘The Art of Distancing: How Formal Devices Manage Our
Emotional Responses to Literature’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
62(2) (2004): 153–162.
9 . Edward Bullough, ‘Psychical Distance as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic
Principle’, British Journal of Psychology 5(2) (1912): 87–117.
10 . Robinson 161.
11 . Ibid. 159–161.
12 . Ibid. 158. The two passages quoted in the following paragraph are on the
same page.
13 . Robinson further develops this line of reasoning in Deeper than Reason:
Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music and Art (Oxford University Press,
2005), chapter 7, ‘Formal Devices as Coping Mechanisms’ (pp. 195–228),
where she concedes that in Shakespeare’s sonnet 37, ‘the couple at the end
forces us to confront death rather than avoid it’ (p. 226), and the symbolism
of the three quatrains that precede it constitute ‘a type of displacement , but
it is not a denial or avoidance of death, but rather a way of emphasizing its
positive aspects’ (p. 224; her italics). These two concessions notwithstanding,
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Heavenly Hurt: The Joy and Value of Sad Poetry 205
her approach remains one couched in terms of ‘avoidance’, ‘defensive’, and
‘distancing’ strategies, as the title of her chapter indicates. A side note on the
final couplet: contrary to Robinson and other interpreters, in my view it is
not the poem’s speaker whom the reader must leave, but rather life itself. This
interlocutor, upon ‘perceiving’ the speaker’s old age, and the natural cycles
that everything must go through to which he is compared (trees losing their
leaves, day becoming night, fire turning to ashes), becomes determined to
love life well: ‘This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong / To
love that well which thou must leave ere long’.
14 . Except perhaps for Aristotle’s notion of catharsis, which seems to require our
living through the difficult emotions. As we shall see later, something similar
is happening with the sad lyric.
15 . I say ‘akin to’ so as to avoid being interpreted as saying that the reader or
listener suddenly thinks that she is the poet, or that her thoughts and feel-
ings are exactly like those expressed in the poem. The notion of identification
has a problematic history, to be sure, but reasonable construals of it do not
represent it as tantamount to thinking one is identical with that with which
one identifies.
16 . Dylan Thomas, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’, from The Collected
Poems of Dylan Thomas (New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1957),
128. An audio clip of Thomas reciting his poem may be found here: http://
17 . For some evidence, see and the story on National
Public Radio about it:
18 . Apostolos N. Athanassakis, The Homeric Hymns , 2nd edn. (Baltimore: The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004 [1976]), 18, lines 163–164.
19 . Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, Relevance Theory: Communication and
Cognition , 2nd edn. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).
20 . Ibid. 86.
21 . H. P. Grice, ‘Logic and Conversation’, in Studies in the Way of Words
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 22–40. Grice recognized ten
maxims, organized under four categories (quantity, quality, relation, and
manner). ‘Be relevant’ was his maxim of relation.
22 . Relevance Theory , 125.
23 . Much of the material on relevance theory here is adapted from my ‘Relevance
Theory and Poetic Effects’, Philosophy and Literature 37(1) (2013).
24 . In ‘Toward a Philosophy of Poetry’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 33 (2009):
61–77, 69.
25 . ‘Estranho livro aquele que escreveste / Poeta da saudade e do sofrer / Estranho
livro em que puseste / Tudo o que eu sinto sem poder dizer! // Parece que
folheio toda a minh’alma! / O livro que me deste é meu, e salma / As orações
que choro e rio e canto!’ in ‘A um livro’ (‘To a Book’) from Livro das Mágoas
( Book of Sorrows ), 1919, in Poesia de Florbela Espanca , vol. 1 (Porto Alegre:
L&PM Editores, 2002), 146, my translation.
26 . ‘Toward a Philosophy of Poetry’, 69. Kendall Walton develops a very
similar idea in ‘ Thoughtwriting —in Poetry and Music’ ( New Literary History
42: pp. 455–476, 2011), although a central concern of his essay is with
showing that we need not postulate narrators or personae to explain various
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206 Anna Christina Ribeiro
features of these art forms; rather, we should think of poets and musicians
as ‘thoughtwriters’, on analogy with speechwriters, that is, people who
create a vehicle appropriate to the thoughts, ideas and emotions we wish to
express. Walton also uses a notion of ‘appropriation’ along the lines of the
one proposed here (467–468). As my moving between ‘poetic persona’ and
‘poet’ in the quote above suggests, I take no stance on the issue here, in part
because, for the purposes of therapeutic appropriation, it makes no differ-
ence to the appropriator whether the words ‘taken on’ are taken to be those
of the poet or those of a poetic persona created by the poet. Nevertheless,
the question is important, especially as it relates (as Walton himself notes on
p. 463) to the question of whether poetry seen as ‘thoughtwriting’ is fiction.
I discuss this issue in ‘When is Poetry Fiction?’ (in preparation).
27 . Autobiography (London: Penguin Classics, 1990), 112. Mill appears to
misquote Coleridge’s ‘Dejection: An Ode’, which rather reads ‘no natural
outlet, no relief’ on the third line quoted here.
28 . Ibid. 122.
29 . ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’,
lines 22–24. In M. H. Abrams et al., The Norton Anthology of English Literature:
The Major Authors , 8th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006).
30 . In Liane Neves’ A Porto Alegre de Mário Quintana ’ (Porto Alegre: Ministério
da Cultura, 2004), 117, renowned Brazilian advertising writer Washington
Olivetto recounts how the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky and of Mario
Quintana made him ‘replace despair with concentration and fear with hope’
during the 53 days in which he was held hostage by kidnappers.
31 . In Ta ps on t he Wall s: Po ems f rom t he Han oi Hi lt on (Chicago: Master Wings
Publishing, 2013), John Borling tells the story of how he survived nearly seven
years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam by composing and memorizing poetry (he
had no writing materials) and conveying it to fellow prisoners by tap code.
32 . Alice Sebold, ‘Introduction’, The Best American Short Stories 2009 , ed. Alice
Sebold and Heidi Pitlor (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
2009), xvi.
33 . Autobiography , 120.
34 . See his Don Juan , Canto III, stanzas 93–95.
35 . ‘Sometimes in the evenings a face / Looks at us from the depths of a mirror; /
Art should be like that mirror / That reveals to us our own face.’ Borges,
Selected Poems , ed. Alexander Coleman (New York: Penguin Books, 1999),
136, my translation.
36 . ‘There’s a certain slant of light’. The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (New
York: Barnes and Noble, 1993), 125–126.
37 . Autobiography , 118.
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My point of departure is the observation that people ubiquitously turn to aesthetic practices in response to the loss of a loved one. I argue that profound loss catapults the bereaved person into an alternate “world” that differs in marked ways from the world we usually occupy, an alternate world lacking even the basic coherence we need to function. Aesthetic practices facilitate restoration of coherence to our experience, as well as reconnection with the social world and recovery from the breakdown that profound loss involves. While the aesthetic notion of closure is frequently invoked in connection with the needs of the bereaved, I suggest that while containing the emotions experienced in connection with loss is vital if they are to be processed, unrealistic aspirations toward closure can encourage expectations that harm the bereaved. By contrast, I suggest that the aims of aesthetically punctuating experience and communicating through aesthetic gestures are beneficial for helping the bereaved adjust to their new circumstances.
Full-text available
This essay updates Aaron Smuts', 2009 Philosophy Compass piece, “Art and Negative Affect” in light of recent work on the topic. The “paradox of painful art” is the general problem of how it is possible to enjoy or value experiences of art that involve painful emotions. It encompasses both the paradox of tragedy and the paradox of horror. Section lays out a taxonomy of solutions to the paradox of painful art and argues that we should opt for a pluralistic approach rather than seeking a unified solution. Section surveys recent work on the topic, with an emphasis on views holding that it is possible for an experience of art to be pleasant partly in virtue of involving painful emotion. Section suggests a range of phenomena that are not usually considered under the umbrella of the paradox of painful art but that offer promising directions for further research.
Sappho: A New Translation Foreword by Dudley Fitts
  • M Barnard
Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’, from The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas An audio clip of Thomas reciting his poem may be found here
  • Dylan Thomas
Introduction The Best American Short Stories
  • Alice Sebold
Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors
  • Ode