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What Is an Elegiac?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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“Elegiac” is a term used to describe certain types of writing and can refer to two specific meters within poetry. As a general description, it often indicates a work that can be described as an “elegy,” which is often contemplative or mournful in tone and frequently. Though not always, it may be written for someone who has died. Within a classical context, the term “elegiac” refers to a couplet, two paired lines in a poem, that are written in dactylic meters. This same term in reference to an English poem often indicates a poem consisting of quatrains, four lines together, written in iambic pentameter.

A work that is described as “elegiac” in general terms typically indicates that it is an elegy. These types of works are often written for someone who has died, though this is not required, and usually take on an introspective tone. Such poems can be written in the memory of someone, mourning their passing, or simply as a work that contemplates the natural world in a way that is often more somber than celebratory.

There are also very specific forms of elegiac poetry that can be written or referred to, each with different but precise metrical structures. In classical writing, specifically Greek or Roman works, this form of poetry consists primarily of couplets. A couplet is a pair of lines together that often share an end rhyme and usually function as a complete stanza.

Both of the lines in a classical elegiac structure are written in dactylic meter. This refers to the feet of each line, which are simply groups of syllables that are considered together to form patterns within the work. A dactylic foot, or dactyl, consists of one long syllable followed by two short syllables, though in English this is changed to one stressed syllable and then two unstressed.

The first line of an elegiac couplet is written in dactylic hexameter, which means that the line consists of six feet that are each created as a dactyl. The word “hexameter” includes the prefix “hex-” which means “six,” indicating that the line has a meter of six feet, and “dactylic” describes those feet. The second line in the couplet is written in dactylic pentameter, which has only five feet, indicated by the “penta-” prefix, that each consist of a dactyl.

In contrast to this, an English elegiac work is typically written as a quatrain in iambic pentameter. A quatrain is a stanza that consists of four lines and in this type of work they often have an alternating rhyme scheme; the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second and fourth. The word “iambic” describes a metrical structure in which each foot of the line consists of an “iamb,” which is a short syllable followed by a long or an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed. Iambic pentameter indicates five feet per line, and each foot consists of an iamb.

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