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What Is Memorial Poetry?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Memorial poetry aims to remember or to praise, in verse, a loved one who has passed away. Also called elegies, these poems are read aloud at funeral services or published in the deceased’s honor. There are no uniform styles or rules associated with memorial poetry. With the proliferation of memorial websites and pages online, memorial poems are becoming a more popular means to remember someone.

Poetry is a form of literary art. Greek philosopher Aristotle tried to define poetry in his “Poetics.” Aristotle believed that the difference between a poet and a historian went beyond verse and prose, but was about the latter capturing the raw facts and the former capturing the raw emotions of a person or event. Classical, medieval and early modern poetry followed a number of set rules and patterns from the classical dactylic hexameter to the English iambic pentameter via Anglo-Saxon alliteration. More modern poetry, such as Emily Dickinson's, attempted to break down such rules and allow more creativity.

This kind of poetry is a collection of moments, memories and feelings focused on an individual. They can be highly personal, linking the poet to the deceased or general celebrations of a person. Other forms will leave the deceased out of the poem, but the feelings will be known by all those who read it.

The poet can use any form she wishes or no form at all. The most important element of a memorial poem is the memory and the emotion attached to it. This is why there are no rules governing their length, meter, rhyming structure of themes.

Some poets and historians believe early epic poems such as Homer’s “Iliad” are early and lengthy attempts to write memorial poetry. The classical elegy uses elegiac couplets with the first one having a rising quality balanced out by the second’s falling quality. Classical examples of elegies include Ovid mourning his exile and Catullus mourning his brother’s passing. After the fall of the Roman Empire, elegies remained popular as gravestone epitaphs.

Memorial poetry continued in popularity through the Middle Ages, though it was confined to the upper echelons of society. King Hakon of Norway, for example, was remembered in the “Hakonarmal” poem, which built upon earlier memorial poems such as “Eiriksmal.” In America, poets and poems such as Robert Frost’s “My Butterfly: An Elegy” and Emily Dickinson’s “Asleep” helped make the format more popular.

The eulogy is quite different from memorial poetry and elegies. A eulogy is a speech, perhaps written with verse in mind, that is read in praise of the deceased in a funeral service. One of the most famous eulogies is the funerary oration of Pericles, as recorded by Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War.

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Discussion Comments
By browncoat — On Aug 29, 2014

@Fa5t3r - And some of the most wonderful poetry ever written was devised in honor of someone who had passed on. Funeral Blues is an example most people are familiar with, because it was the poem read out at the funeral in Four Weddings and A Funeral.

I don't think funeral poems need to be written for the person. Sometimes one that expresses the pain comes from the past.

By Fa5t3r — On Aug 28, 2014

@Ana1234 - I don't think that describes any difference between poetry written for a loved one and poetry written for another reason though. If you have someone who is good at writing poetry, they will be able to write a good poem about anything, including a memorial. Specifics don't really matter. A poem can be very specific to a particular person and still have universal appeal.

I think that probably this is a situation when people feel that poetry is appropriate and may try their hand at it with varied results. But that can be very touching as well. Sometimes you simply cannot express what someone means to you without using poetic techniques. They were invented and are still used for a reason and generally that reason is to clarify and intensify a message or emotion.

By Ana1234 — On Aug 27, 2014

Honestly, I have to say that I don't like this kind of poetry much. I don't think it's a bad thing for someone to do for their own benefit, to have closure but poetry that is this specific is rarely going to appeal to a greater audience.

You end up hearing poems that are less of a tribute to a person and more of a tribute to the poet who wrote them, and even if it has significance for them, it won't mean anything to anyone else.

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