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Elegy

Beautiful but sad – the best kind of sadness. It's that melancholy combination that makes us shed a tear at that adorable romance movie when we thought no one was watching. We won't judge. It gets emotional seeing someone pour their heart out, okay?

Think of the elegy as the poetry equivalent of that beautiful but sad movie. We'll see poets mourning the loss of close family, remembering the lives of best friends, and coming to terms with the natural cycle of life and death. Of course, we'll also explore the stunning verses, beautiful symbolism, and captivating imagery that we've come to expect from the world's finest lyricists.

Let's start by looking at the meaning of the term and then at the three specific types of elegy. We can then look at the functions of the elegy and explore some prominent elegy examples.

Elegy: meaning

What is an 'elegy'? Here's a simple definition to get us started:

An elegy is a serious, melancholic poem, often written to reflect on the sorrow of losing someone who has died.

Think of an elegy as a poem that contemplates and helps the poet come to terms with the loss of a loved one. Elegies today have no set meter or rhyme scheme and are instead defined entirely by their subject matter. They are usually written in the first person, owing to the very personal nature of the poems.

Elegy: ancient history

The elegy as a poem about death and mortality is a modern concept; Earlier elegies were defined by their meter, form, and structure rather than their content. In fact, the term 'elegy' was first used in Greek and Latin writing to describe a verse written in elegiac couplets, a form of poetry featuring one line of dactylic hexameter and one line of dactylic pentameter.

A dactyl is a metrical foot consisting of one stressed, followed by two unstressed syllables. A line of dactylic hexameter contains six dactyls per line, and a line of dactylic pentameter contains five dactyls per line.

By this definition, any poem that consisted of elegiac couplets was considered an elegy.

Early elegies covered various topics, ranging from death and war to love and mythology. While many Greek elegies were expressions of sorrow and grief, poets were not limited to mournful subjects; many used elegiac verse as an opportunity for humour and satire. In the broadest sense, the elegy was seen as a vehicle to allow poets to express deep emotions.

Elegy: history in English literature

It wasn't until the sixteenth century that the elegy became associated with lamentation and loss. Before then, the elegy's definition was significantly vaguer; it was often seen simply as a poem for meditation and sombre reflection.

The style was developed in the eighteenth century when it flourished during the Romantic movement:

The Romantic movement was a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that began towards the end of the eighteenth century and lasted until the mid-nineteenth century. Romantic poets typically celebrated the natural world and human emotions over science and rationality.

The deeply emotive, personal nature of the elegy suited the ideas and values of the romanticists. It was so favoured during this time that the romanticists also restructured the conventions of the elegiac stanza. When reading elegies from the eighteenth century, we typically see iambic pentameter, quatrains, and an ABAB rhyme pattern. However, this structure is not prescriptive. Many poets experiment with form and meter when creating their elegies, and the only true defining characteristic of a contemporary elegy is the subject of loss, grief, and death.

Elegy: in a sentence

The word elegy is a singular noun. This means that it should be preceded by an indefinite article (a/an) or a definite article (the). It could also be preceded by a possessive adjective (my, your, his, her). Let's look at some examples:

'Today, I wrote an elegy to help myself come to terms with the loss of a friend.'

'When I flicked through the poetry anthology, I came across the elegy that Shelley wrote for Keats.'

'That's my elegy. I wrote it for a competition'.

Be careful! It's easy to get mixed up between 'elegy' and 'eulogy'! A eulogy is a tribute spoken at a funeral to praise the life of somebody who has died, and an elegy is a poem that reflects on the pain of losing a person who has passed away. To learn the difference, remember that a eulogy is often uplifting while an elegy is more commonly sombre in tone.

Function of elegy

The traditional elegy has a number of unique functions, largely because it's often extremely personal and penned to help the poet work through their emotions. Let's look at some of the key ways the elegy accomplishes this.

To lament the loss of life

The first part of an elegy usually laments the loss of life of the poem's subject. By articulating their feelings on the page, the elegy can help the poet come to terms with their grief. They will often convey their pain and sorrow through their poetry, with the primary goal of the poetry being personal expression over stylistic perfection or commercial success.

Elegy Feather Ink Pen Poetry StudySmarterFig 1. Elegies convey the author's pain and sorrow.

To express admiration

The elegy also acts as a way for the poet to commemorate their lost loved one, remembering all of their positive contributions, achievements, and ideas.

There is some crossover with the traditional 'eulogy' here, but remember that the elegy is more mournful in tone.

To reach consolation

One of the primary functions of the elegy is to allow the poet to reach some form of closure. Many elegies, therefore, end with a consolation. Think of the previous functions as methods for a poet to work through their complicated emotions, allowing them to reach a point where they can come to terms with their loss. The poet may reflect on mortality and the nature of death. The consolation often contains religious overtones as a way for the poet to maintain faith in the afterlife.

Types of Elegy

There are three commonly defined subdivisions of the elegy: the pastoral elegy, the impersonal elegy, and the personal elegy. Let's look at each in more detail below.

Pastoral elegy

The most distinct sub-genre of the elegy is the pastoral elegy, which combines features of the elegy with features of pastoral poetry.

Pastoral poetry depicts the fantasy of living in an idyllic rural world. It often compares the bleakness of the city with the beauty of living with nature. Characters are often represented as shepherds living as one with the natural world.

The poet takes the typical tropes of an elegy, such as mourning and admiration for a loved one, and ties it to pastoral elements. The deceased subject of the poem is often presented as a shepherd. The poet may also use natural imagery symbolically and could also depict the impact the specific person's death will have on nature. The poet may finalise his work by using the beauty of the natural world to reach a consolation about the inevitability of death and renewal.

Some popular examples of pastoral elegies are John Milton's 'Lycidas' (1637), Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Adonais' (1821) and Matthew Arnold’s 'Thyrsis' (1865).

Personal vs impersonal elegy

It's common to refer to some elegies as personal and others as impersonal. What do we mean by this? Here are two simple definitions to clarify the difference.

A personal elegy laments the death of a specific individual.

An impersonal elegy is not tied to a specific person and mourns death or loss on a broader scale. Poets may grieve over human nature, destiny, or conditions.

Some of the most popular personal elegies are Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'In Memoriam A.H.H' (1850), Walt Whitman's 'O Captain! My Captain!' (1865), W.H Auden's 'In Memory Of W.B. Yeats' (1939) and Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Adonais' (1821), all of which focus on the death of one particular person.

In contrast, Thomas Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' (1751) meditates on the concept of death as a whole, including fear of death and its inevitability.

Elegy: examples

Let's explore two examples of elegies and how they mirror our understanding of the genre as a whole.

Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'In Memoriam A.H.H'

One of the most famous examples of an elegy is Tennyson's 'In Memoriam A.H.H'. Within the elegy, Tennyson comes to terms with the death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. He recounts private memories, emphasises the intense male companionship between him and Arthur, and offers truths about love and death.

I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

After working through his grief Tennyson comes to terms with his sorrow, stating in the final quatrain that losing his beloved friend after such a short time is still better than never having loved him at all. Here we see how poets try to find consolation within their elegies, realising that celebrating life instead of mourning death can offer comfort and solace.

Elegy Tennyson StudySmarterFig 1. - Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'In Memoriam A.H.H' shows how he comes to terms with his grief.

Walt Whitman's 'O Captain! My Captain!'

Walt Whitman's 'O Captain! My Captain! (1865) remembers the life of Abraham Lincoln following his assassination. The poem was a departure from Whitman's normal style, and it was his most popular poem during his lifetime.

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead

The elegy simultaneously celebrates the American Civil War while mourning the death of the ship's captain, Abraham Lincoln. Here we see the combined function of the elegy, wherein it both laments a death while celebrating life. While Lincoln won the war, he is tragically not there to see it. Whitman illustrates that no triumph is without mourning and defeat. Every victory worthy of celebration must come at a severe price.

Elegy - Key takeaways

  • An elegy is a serious, melancholic poem, often written to reflect on the sorrow of losing someone who has died.
  • Elegies can help a poet mourn the loss of their friend, show frustration at the loss of such a brilliant life, and come to terms with death.
  • Personal elegies reflect on the life of a particular person, whereas impersonal elegies reflect on the concept of death as a whole.
  • Pastoral elegies are a significant subgenre of elegies in which features of the elegy are linked with typical pastoral concepts and ideas.
  • Some famous examples of Elegies are Alfred Lord Tennyson's In 'Memoriam A.H.H' (1850), Walt Whitman's 'O Captain! My Captain!' (1865), W.H Auden's 'In Memory Of W.B. Yeats' (1939) and Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Adonais' (1821).

Frequently Asked Questions about Elegy

Elegy is pronounced: eh-luh-jee.

The main goal of writing an elegy is to mourn the loss of a close friend or relative in order to come to terms with their death.

An elegy is a serious, melancholic poem, often written to reflect on the sorrow of losing someone who has died.

Some of the most popular personal elegies are Alfred Lord Tennyson's In 'Memoriam A.H.H' (1850), Walt Whitman's 'O Captain! My Captain!' (1865), W.H Auden's 'In Memory Of W.B. Yeats' (1939), Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Adonais' (1821) and Thomas Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' (1751).

An epic is a long narrative poem detailing the amazing achievements of extraordinary heroes. An elegy is a mournful, melancholic poem reflecting on the death of a loved one.

Final Elegy Quiz

Question

What is an elegy?

Show answer

Answer

An elegy is a serious, melancholic poem, often written to reflect on the sorrow of losing someone who has died. 

Show question

Question

Elegies today have a set meter and rhyme scheme. Is this true or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

How are elegies usually written?

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Answer

Elegies are defined entirely by their subject matter and are usually written in the first person.

Show question

Question

How were elegies defined in the past?

Show answer

Answer

Earlier elegies were defined by their meter, form, and structure rather than their content.

Show question

Question

When was the term 'elegy' first used?

Show answer

Answer

The term 'elegy' was first used in Greek and Latin writing to describe a verse written in elegiac couplets.

Show question

Question

What is an elegiac couplet?

Show answer

Answer

It is a form of poetry featuring one line of dactylic hexameter and one line of dactylic pentameter. 

Show question

Question

In the past, any poem that consisted of elegiac couplets was considered an elegy. Is this true or false?

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Elegiac verse was used as an opportunity for humour and satire. Is this true or false?

Show answer

Answer

True. 

Show question

Question

When did the elegy become associated with lamentation and loss?

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Answer

16th century.

Show question

Question

What was the Romantic movement?

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Answer

The Romantic movement was a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that began towards the end of the eighteenth century and lasted until the mid-nineteenth century.

Show question

Question

What is the defining characteristic of a contemporary elegy?

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Answer

The only true defining characteristic of a contemporary elegy is the subject of loss, grief, and death.

Show question

Question

The word elegy is a plural noun. Is this true or false?

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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

What is the difference between elegy and eulogy?

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Answer

A eulogy is a tribute spoken at a funeral to praise the life of somebody who has died, whereas an elegy is a poem that reflects on the pain of losing a person who has passed away.

Show question

Question

The _______ of an elegy usually laments the loss of life of the poem's subject. Fill in the blank.

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Answer

First part.

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Question

How does the poet use elegy to commemorate the loss of a loved one?

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Answer

It does so by remembering all of their positive contributions, achievements, and ideas. 

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Question

What is one of the primary functions of the elegy?

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Answer

One of the primary functions of the elegy is to allow the poet to reach some form of closure.

Show question

Question

What is pastoral elegy?

Show answer

Answer

Pastoral elegy combines features of the elegy with features of pastoral poetry.

Show question

Question

What is pastoral poetry?

Show answer

Answer

Pastoral poetry depicts the fantasy of living in an idyllic rural world. It often compares the bleakness of the city with the beauty of living with nature. 

Show question

Question

How is the combination between pastoral poetry and elegy made?

Show answer

Answer

The deceased subject of the poem is often presented as a shepherd. The poet may also use natural imagery symbolically and could also depict the impact the specific person's death will have on nature. The poet may finalise his work by using the beauty of the natural world to reach a consolation about the inevitability of death and renewal.

Show question

Question

What is a personal elegy?

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Answer

A personal elegy laments the death of a specific individual.

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Question

What is an impersonal elegy?

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Answer

An impersonal elegy is not tied to a specific person and mourns death or loss on a broader scale.

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Question

Which of the following is not an example of an elegy?

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Answer

Edgar Allan Poe - 'The Raven'.

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