Definition of Elegy

An elegy is a form of poetry that typically reflects on death or loss. Traditionally, an elegiacal poem addresses themes of mourning, sorrow, and lamentation; however, such poems can also address redemption and solace. Overall, the artistic language of poetry allows such sentiments to be expressed and articulated in the form of elegy.

For example, Walt Whitman’s elegy “O Captain! My Captain!” memorialized President Abraham Lincoln shortly after his assassination:

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.

Whitman’s expression of reverence, grief, and lamentation is represented in this stanza of the elegy. In addition to mourning the loss of Lincoln, the poem mourns the state of the union after the Civil War.

History and Structure of Elegy

The ancient Greeks established a tradition of “elegeia,” which refers to a poetic verse of couplets about subjects such as death, loss, love, and battle. This tradition was adopted by Roman conquerors who formulated elegies in Latin and addressed similar topics as Greek elegeia but added erotic and mythological themes as well.

The Renaissance brought a revival of elegy poems and their introduction to English literature. English poets focused their elegiacal verse primarily on death and loss of a loved one.

Classical elegiac poetry was generally structured in couplets. Since the eighteenth century, stanzas within elegy poems typically feature a quatrain, written in iambic pentameter with an ABAB rhyme scheme. However, this structure is only suggestive, as many poets compose elegies with different meter and rhyme scheme. In fact,, most contemporary elegies have no set or formal structure at all.

Common Examples of Themes in Elegy

As a literary device and poetic form, elegy traditionally encompasses themes that represent a poet’s deep and meaningful personal reflections. Thomas Gray’s well-known poem “An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard,” published in the mid-eighteenth century, solidified elegy poems as philosophical expressions of lamentation and mourning. Some have termed this type of poetry as “graveyard” or “churchyard” poetry, intended to express bereavement, sorrow, and pain. In addition, much of graveyard poetry addresses the physical phenomenon of death and fleeting nature of life.

However, elegiacal poetry can address many themes other than loss of life and grief. Here are some common examples of theme in elegy:

  • death and its inevitability and/or universality
  • personal loss
  • humankind and nature
  • memory and/or the past
  • Nostalgia for youth
  • isolation
  • devotion
  • society
  • loss of love
  • death of influential leader, writer, or other public figures/heroes

Famous Examples of Elegy Written by One Author for Another

There is an established tradition of authors composing elegies that are inspired by and honor their fellow literary counterparts. These poems often reflect feelings of lament for the author’s death, eulogistic praise for their literary work and impact, and a form of solace for other mourners who may be without the power of elegiacal expression.

Here are some famous examples of elegy written by one author for another:

  • Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray–inspired by the death of the poet Richard West
  • “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” by W.H. Auden–honoring the passing of Irish poet William Butler Yeats
  • “Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats” by Percy Bysshe Shelley–memorial poem for poet John Keats
  • “Thyrsis” by Matthew Arnold–commemoration of the death of the poet Arthur Hugh Clough
  • “Blake’s Purest Daughter” by Brian Patten–elegy for the poet Stevie Smith

Difference Between Elegy, Dirge, and Eulogy

Elegy, dirge, and eulogy serve similar purposes in relation to mourning and funerial services, but they are distinct from each other. An elegy is a poem that reflects on a subject or person through sorrow or melancholy. Elegies are typically poems about someone who has died. A dirge is a brief hymn or song that expresses lamentation or grief, and is generally composed to be performed at a funeral. In lyric poetry, a dirge is typically shorter and less reflective or meditative than an elegy. A eulogy is a speech given as part of a funeral service that is written in tribute and praise of someone who has recently died.

Examples of Elegy in Literature

As a poetic device, the artistic language of elegy allows writers to express honor, reverence, mourning, and even solace. Poets utilize elegy to reflect upon and memorialize the death of important historical figures or their own personal losses. Regardless of the subject, this poetic form enhances experience and understanding for readers at a deeply emotional level.

Here are some examples of elegy in literature:

Example 1: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d (Walt Whitman)

Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

Whitman’s full poem is an elegy inspired by Abraham Lincoln and the feelings of loss in America following the Civil War. Whitman’s poem is considered a pastoral elegy, elements of which are heavily present in section 5. Pastoral poetry features themes of beauty in nature, idealized rural settings, and harmony in the country. In Whitman’s elegy, the pastoral aesthetic described in the poem is also a political allegory for the Civil War. For example, the poet incorporates phrases such as “gray debris” and “yellow-spear’d wheat” which evoke images of the war intertwined with the resiliency and regrowth of nature. In section 6, the poet’s “sprig of lilac” that is given is a pastoral symbol of his poetic elegy to Lincoln.

Example 2: Dirge Without Music (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

St. Vincent Millay’s poem is interesting in that it is almost an anti-elegy. Rather than lamenting the pain of death and loss, the poet rejects these feelings and the standard idealizations featured in most elegy poems. Instead, the poet does not “approve” of death and is not “resigned” to it. This does not mean that the poet feels immortal, but it is rather an indictment of traditional elegies that appear to romanticize and accept death as well as memorialize those who have died.

Example 3: A Dirge (Christina Rossetti)

Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling,
Or when grapes are green in the cluster,
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster
For their far off flying
From summer dying.

Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?
You should have died at the apples’ dropping,
When the grasshopper comes to trouble,
And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,
And all winds go sighing
For sweet things dying.

Rossetti titles her poem “A Dirge” though it is an elegiacal work. This elegy is interesting in that it inverts the characteristics of the pastoral tradition. Rather than romanticizing or idealizing the association between nature and death, the poet implies that death, and birth, often do not intersect with the “proper” seasons that represent such events.

For example, in the second stanza, the poet is essentially asking the person who has died why their death took place in the spring, a season that typically represents birth and new life. The same questioning is true of the first stanza as to being born in winter, a season typically associated with death. As a result, the poet’s elegy addresses the inevitability of death while simultaneously subverting the pastoral connection of the seasons.