A lament or lamentation is a passionate expression of grief, often in music, poetry, or song form. The grief is most often born of regret, or mourning. Laments can also be expressed in a verbal manner in which participants lament about something that they regret or someone that they have lost, and they are usually accompanied by wailing, moaning and/or crying.[1] Laments constitute some of the oldest forms of writing, and examples exist across human cultures.

Jan Kochanowski with dead daughter in painting inspired by the poet's Laments


Egyptian women weeping and lamenting

Many of the oldest and most lasting poems in human history have been laments.[2] The Lament for Sumer and Ur dates back at least 4000 years to ancient Sumer, the world's first urban civilization. Laments are present in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and laments continued to be sung in elegiacs accompanied by the aulos in classical and Hellenistic Greece.[3] Elements of laments appear in Beowulf, in the Hindu Vedas, and in ancient Near Eastern religious texts. They are included in the Mesopotamian City Laments such as the Lament for Ur and the Jewish Tanakh, (which Christians refer to as the Old Testament).

In many oral traditions, both early and modern, the lament has been a genre usually performed by women:[4] Batya Weinbaum made a case for the spontaneous lament of women chanters in the creation of the oral tradition that resulted in the Iliad[5] The material of lament, the "sound of trauma" is as much an element in the Book of Job as in the genre of pastoral elegy, such as Shelley's "Adonais" or Matthew Arnold's "Thyrsis".[6]

The Book of Lamentations or Lamentations of Jeremiah figures in the Old Testament. The Lamentation of Christ (under many closely variant terms) is a common subject from the Life of Christ in art, showing Jesus' dead body being mourned after the Crucifixion. Jesus himself lamented over the prospective fall of Jerusalem as he and his disciples entered the city ahead of his passion.[7]

A lament in the Book of Lamentations or in the Psalms, in particular in the Lament/Complaint Psalms of the Tanakh, may be looked at as "a cry of need in a context of crisis when Israel lacks the resources to fend for itself".[8] Another way of looking at it is all the more basic: laments simply being "appeals for divine help in distress".[9] These laments, too, often have a set format: an address to God, description of the suffering/anguish from which one seeks relief, a petition for help and deliverance, a curse towards one's enemies, an expression of the belief of ones innocence or a confession of the lack thereof, a vow corresponding to an expected divine response, and lastly, a song of thanksgiving.[9] Examples of a general format of this, both in the individual and communal laments, can be seen in Psalm 3 and Psalm 44 respectively.[9]

The Lament of Edward II, if it is actually written by Edward II of England, is the sole surviving composition of his.

A heroine's lament is a conventional fixture of baroque opera seria, accompanied usually by strings alone, in descending tetrachords.[10] Because of their plangent cantabile melodic lines, evocatively free, non-strophic construction and adagio pace, operatic laments have remained vividly memorable soprano or mezzo-soprano arias even when separated from the emotional pathos of their operatic contexts. An early example is Ariadne's "Lasciatemi morire", which is the only survivor of Claudio Monteverdi's lost Arianna. Francesco Cavalli's operas extended the lamento formula, in numerous exemplars, of which Ciro's "Negatemi respiri" from Ciro is notable.[11]

Other examples include Dido's Lament ("When I am laid in earth") (Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas), "Lascia ch'io pianga" (George Frideric Handel, Rinaldo), "Caro mio ben" (Tomaso or Giuseppe Giordani). The lament continued to represent a musico-dramatic high point. In the context of opera buffa, the Countess's lament, "Dove sono", comes as a surprise to the audience of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, and in Gioachino Rossini's Barber of Seville, Rosina's plaintive words at her apparent abandonment are followed, not by the expected lament aria, but by a vivid orchestral interlude of storm music. The heroine's lament remained a fixture in romantic opera, and the Marschallin's monologue in act 1 of Der Rosenkavalier can be understood as a penetrating psychological lament.[12]

In modernity, discourses about melancholia and trauma take the functional place ritual laments hold in premodern societies. This entails a shift from a focus on community and convention to individuality and authenticity.[13]

Scottish laments


The purely instrumental lament is a common form in piobaireachd music for the Scottish bagpipes. "MacCrimmon's Lament" dates to the Jacobite uprising of 1745. The tune is held to have been written by Donald Ban MacCrimmon, piper to the MacLeods of Dunvegan, who supported the Hanoverians. It is said that Donald Ban, who was killed at Moy in 1746, had an intimation that he would not return.[clarification needed][14]

A well-known Gaelic lullaby is "Griogal Cridhe" ("Beloved Gregor"). It was composed in 1570 after the execution of Gregor MacGregor by the Campbells. The grief-stricken widow, Marion Campbell, describes what happened as she sings to her child.[15]

"Cumhadh na Cloinne" ("Lament for the Children") is a pìobaireachd composed by Padruig Mór MacCrimmon in the early 1650s. It is generally held to be based on the loss of seven of MacCrimmon's eight sons within a year to smallpox,[16][17] possibly brought to Skye by a Spanish trading vessel. Poet and writer Angus Peter Campbell, quoting poet Sorley MacLean, has called it "one of the great artistic glories of all Europe".[18] Author Bridget MacKenzie, in Piping Traditions of Argyll, suggests that it refers to the slaughter of the MacLeod's fighting Cromwell's forces at the Battle of Worcester. It may have been inspired by both.[19]

Other Scottish laments from outside of the piobaireachd tradition include "Lowlands Away"[citation needed], "MacPherson's Rant", and "Hector the Hero".

Musical form


There is a short, free musical form appearing in the Baroque and then again in the Romantic periods, called lament. It is typically a set of harmonic variations in homophonic texture, wherein the bass (Lament bass) descends through a tetrachord, usually one suggesting a minor mode.[citation needed]

See also



  1. ^ Piotr Michalowski, trans., Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1989), 39–62; cited in Nancy Lee, Lyrics of Lament: From Tragedy to Transformation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009)
  2. ^ Austin, Linda M. (December 1998). "The Lament and the Rhetoric of the Sublime". Nineteenth-Century Literature. 53 (3): 279–306. doi:10.2307/2903041. JSTOR 2903041, traces the literary rhetoric evoking a voice crying.
  3. ^ Margaret Alexiou, Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge University Press) 1974
  4. ^ Alexiou 1974; Angela Bourke, "More in anger than in sorrow: Irish women's lament poetry", in Joan Newlon Radnor, ed., Feminist Messages: Coding in Women's Folk Culture (Urbana: Illinois University Press) 1993:160–182.
  5. ^ Batya Weinbaum, "Lament Ritual Transformed into Literature: Positing Women's Prayer as Cornerstone in Western Classical Literature" Journal of American Folklore 114 No. 451 (Winter 2001:20–39).
  6. ^ Austin 1998, pp. 280f..
  7. ^ Luke 19:41–44: see sub-heading for this section in the Jerusalem Bible (1966)
  8. ^ Walter Brueggemann, An Unsettling God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 13
  9. ^ a b c Michael D. Coogan, A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 370
  10. ^ Ellen Rosand, 2007. Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice (University of California Press), "The lament aria: variations on a theme". pp. 377ff.
  11. ^ "Negatemi respiri" and several others are noted by Rosand 2007:377f.
  12. ^ Jeremy Eichler (15 March 2005). "Lushly Lamenting the Wages of Time and a Lost Golden Age". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 April 2022. the Marschallin's act 1 lament
  13. ^ Prade-Weiss, Juliane (2020). Language of Ruin and Consumption: On Lamenting and Complaining. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781501344190.
  14. ^ "MacCrimmon's Lament", Foghlam Alba Archived 2013-10-06 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ "Lullabies and Dandlings", Foghlam Alba Archived 2013-10-04 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ "Lament for the Children". The Piobaireachd Society.
  17. ^ MacLellan, Captain John. "The History of Piping – The Hereditary Pipers – The MacCrimmons" (PDF). piobaireachd.co.uk.
  18. ^ Campbell, Angus Peter (12 April 2009). "It moved me: Cumha na Cloinne (The Lament for the Children) by Pàdraig Mòr MacCrimmon". The Times.
  19. ^ "Pibroch songs and canntaireachd", Education Scotland Archived 2013-10-04 at the Wayback Machine

Further reading

  • H. Munro Chadwick, Nora Kershaw Chadwick, The Growth of Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932–40), e.g. vol. 2 p. 229.
  • Richard Church, The Lamendation of Military Campaigns. PDQ: Steve Ruling, 2000.
  • Andrew Dalby, Rediscovering Homer (New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN 0-393-05788-7) pp. 141–143.
  • Gail Holst-Warhaft, Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Literature. London: Routledge, 1992. ISBN 0-415-12165-5.
  • Nancy C. Lee, Lyrics of Lament: From Tragedy to Transformation. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010.
  • Marcello Sorce Keller, "Expressing, Communicating, Sharing and Representing Grief and Sorrow with Organised Sound (Musings in Eight Short Segments)", in Stephen Wild, Di Roy, Aaron Corn and Ruth Lee Martin (eds), One Common Thread – The Musical World of Lament – Thematic Issue of Humanities Research. Canberra, ANU University Press, vol. XIX, no. 3. 2013, 3–14
  • Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms. Westminster: John Knox Press, 1981. ISBN 0-8042-1792-0.

Greek laments (Thrênoi, Moirológia)