In The Waves, the 1931 novel she called a “playpoem,” Virginia Woolf enacts a drama of modern elegy, using multiple elegists and elegiac subjects to challenge the terms by which speakers and subjects worthy of poetic mourning are defined. In doing so, Woolf frees the genre from the monumentalizing tendencies that dogged it after the First World War and suggests a broader purpose for what might strike many as an antiquated poetic genre. Woolf’s critique of elegy is political, ethical, and generic, as she rewrites the terms of the genre to make visible the mourners and subjects that traditional elegy erases. This essay begins by reconsidering familiar ground—the Bloomsbury Group and the Cambridge Apostles—in order to place Woolf’s work squarely in the middle of what might otherwise seem an old boys’ club of elegiac inheritance.

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