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What Is an Elegy?

By Elizabeth West
Updated May 23, 2024
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An elegy is a mournful poem about the death of a person or, more rarely, a group. Elegies can also express a feeling of loss in a broader sense, such as for a way of life or a melancholic reflection on human mortality. Its three elements are grief, praise and solace. They are sometimes confused with eulogies and odes. Many classic poets have written elegies for friends, lovers or famous figures they admired.

The word elegy comes from the Greek word elegos, meaning song. Characteristic of these were elegiac couplets with a rhythm of rising and falling, containing a complete idea. Classical poetry written in this metrical form originally covered a wide range of subjects but eventually came to mean a song of mourning. The modern elegy can be a poem written in this meter, not necessarily expressing sadness or loss.

An elegy is not the same as a eulogy, which is a statement written in prose that is read aloud at a funeral, although an elegy might suffice as a eulogy. An ode may also be composed for a deceased person or other subject, but its main purpose is praise and accolades. Epitaphs may be poetic, are usually short, and written for engraving on tombstones.

Three elements found in a traditional elegy usually begin with a lament, an outpouring of grief at the loss of the deceased. In the second stage, the poet shows admiration, listing qualities and perhaps impressive deeds in the person’s lifetime. The poem then moves to the third stage of consolation and solace. This last element may be more religious in tone or simply consist of the poet accepting the finality of death and its role in nature.

Nature themes featured prominently in pastoral elegies, further linking death to its place in the natural order. In the elegy O Captain! My Captain!, written in 1865 after American president Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Walt Whitman used nautical metaphors to liken Lincoln’s leadership as that of a captain shepherding his ship, or the United States, through the “fearful trip” of the American Civil War. This was an unconventional, though effective, departure from the Christlike shepherd images of pastoral elegies. John Peale Bishop’s Hours, on the death of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, also used sea images to connect death to the natural world.

The British school of graveyard poetry in the late 1700s and early 1800s focused on broader themes of human mortality in a sometimes ghoulish way and did not conform to the classical structure. Modern poetry tends also to explore more existential concerns with philosophical observations on feelings, morality or nostalgia. One example is Elegy for N. N. by Czeslaw Milosz, in which he expresses to an unknown woman longing and memories of his youth.

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Discussion Comments
By MrsPramm — On Dec 23, 2013

@Ana1234 - I think it's a shame that more people don't know the older elegies. They used to write really beautiful poems to loved ones and famous people and I don't think it's all that common anymore.

Especially because poetry tends to be more cynical these days so I feel like people don't ever really say what they mean.

By Ana1234 — On Dec 23, 2013

@pleonasm - I agree that is probably the formal poem elegy that most people know the most, but I'd argue that the most well known elegy in the world is "Candle in the Wind" by Elton John. He basically wrote it for Marilyn Monroe although it was rewritten for Princess Diana when she died as well.

I know it's a song but I'd argue that it isn't really all that different from being an elegy. It has some really poetical parts to it and it was written in memory of someone who died.

By pleonasm — On Dec 22, 2013

I think the example of an elegy that most people are familiar with these days is the one that was read during the film "Four Weddings and a Funeral". It's by W. H. Auden and it's called "Funeral Blues."

It really perfectly captures that feeling that the world has stopped, because a particular person has died and nothing will ever be the same again.

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