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.