What is a lament?
A few days ago I did a post in which I labelled the book I am a Chechen as a lament.
This made me think about laments – what are they? The Oxford Dictionaries Online gives several definitions but the one nearest what I meant was ‘a song, piece of music, or poem expressing grief or sorrow’. Some other dictionaries add ‘regret’ as a lament-mobilising emotion.
There are poetic laments everywhere. The Bible is full of them, not only in the book called Lamentations but also in the Psalms and elsewhere. In ancient and traditional societies epics like The Iliad and Beowulf usually incorporate at least one at some point in their narrative. Modern versions may be online – see A Mathematician’s Lament.
The song type is popular in opera, particularly sung by the soprano or mezzosoprano. Performance by women is generally more common than by men – is this because women have more to sorrow over or because they feel the emotion more often, or does the habit have a technical basis – women’s voices fit the music better? This is a speculation for another post.
In pure music, pibroch, the classical music of Scotland, is full of laments for the dead and I don’t doubt so are other musical traditions.
Is a requiem a kind of lament, I wonder? It contains fine poetry and is usually set to music. But a true lament is sung or said for the benefit of the living; a requiem is for the dead.
Not all laments are about death. Other kinds of sorrow can be treated in this way. Loss of homeland (a common theme for the exiled, like Ibn Hamdis, a Spanish Arab of the middle ages) of states of mind (e.g.The Land of Lost Content contained in John Foulds Keltic Suite), or reputation – as Cassio in Othello
Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost
my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation,
Iago, my reputation!
Lament is not nostalgia, though it has many things in common with it. It’s stronger and more central the the lamenter’s life, and probably more universal.
I let Shakespeare have the last word: not only with a list of things lamented, but with a reminder that there are ways of overcoming them and getting back to looking on the bright side.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.