Definition of Elegy
An elegy is a mournful poem, usually written in remembrance of a lost one for a funeral or as a lament. An elegy tells the traffic story of an individual, or an individual’s loss, rather than the collective story of a people, which can be found in epic poetry. An elegy generally combines three stages of loss: first there is grief, then praise of the dead one, and finally consolation.
The word elegy comes from the Greek word elegeia, which means “lament.”
Common Examples of Elegy
The most common analogue to the elegy is the obituary or eulogy. These forms are not as strictly governed as the elegy, yet they share many things in common, such as a mournful lament on the part of the writer or speaker and a sharing of the individual’s stories. Here are some examples of famous eulogies:
- “I would not be standing here today nor standing where I stand every day had she not chosen to sit down. I know that. I know that. I know that. I know that, and I honor that. Had she not chosen to say we shall not—we shall not be moved.”—Oprah Winfrey for Rosa Parks
- “Marilyn Monroe was a legend. In her own lifetime she created a myth of what a poor girl from a deprived background could attain. For the entire world she became a symbol of the eternal feminine. But I have no words to describe the myth and the legend. I did not know this Marilyn Monroe. We gathered here today, knew only Marilyn – a warm human being, impulsive and shy, sensitive and in fear of rejection, yet ever avid for life and reaching out for fulfillment.”—Lee Strasberg for Marilyn Monroe
- “Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity, a standard-bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a truly British girl who transcended nationality, someone with a natural nobility who was classless, who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.”—Charles Spencer for Princess Di
Significance of Elegy in Literature
The definition of elegy as we know it now only came about in the sixteenth century. In ancient Greece, an elegy was any poem written in elegiac couplets, and could deal with any subject matter, including love and battle, along with death. An elegiac couplet is a poetic form comprised of alternating hexameter and pentameter verses, which was used for themes on a smaller scale than epic poetry.
Greek and ancient Roman poets used elegy also for humorous themes and satire. The definition of elegy became more limited thousands of years later, and was quite popular with English poets starting in the sixteen century. Though it is not as popular in contemporary literature in the strictest sense of elegy, there are still thousands of mournful poems written in remembrance of loved ones.
Examples of Elegy in Literature
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
(“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray, 1750)
This poem is a famous example of elegy written by Thomas Gray after the death of his friend, the poet Richard West. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is a meditation on death that opens in a solemn churchyard. The above excerpt is the opening stanza of the poem, and sets the scene for grief and loss.
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.
(“O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman, 1891)
The famous poem “O Captain! My Captain” is an elegy that Walt Whitman wrote for Abraham Lincoln. Whitman brilliantly combines a sense of loss, praise, and solace all in this first stanza of the poem. The solace and praise comes from the fact that every prize has been one and the people are “all exulting,” yet the hard truth of the matter is that Lincoln has “fallen cold and dead.”
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at
drink you and drink you
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden
Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the
sky it is
ample to lie there
(“Fugue of Death” by Paul Celan)
This deeply painful elegy example was written by the poet Paul Celan in remembrance for the people who died in the Holocaust. Celan was born into a German-speaking Jewish family in 1920 and witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust living in a ghetto, being sent to a labor camp, and losing both of his parents in an internment camp. Though it is not as typical to write an elegy to a large group of people, Celan’s poem recognizes the unified pain and loss of an entire population.
I meant to
but never did go looking for him, to buy him back
and now my old guilt is flooding this twilit table
my guilt is ghosting the candles that pale us to skeletons
the ones we must all become in an as yet unspecified order.
Oh Jack, tethered in what rough stall alone
did you remember that one good winter?
(“Jack” by Maxine Kumin, 2005)
This is a more contemporary example of elegy, and it is interesting in that it is written for a horse. Maxine Kumin includes all aspects of loss in her poem, yet in reverse. The poem opens with a happy scene of contentment, and then the poet’s mind wanders back to the winter in which her horse Jack displayed noble qualities. She finally ends with the pain and grief of having sold Jack and never knowing what happened to him.
The role of elegy is
To put a death mask on tragedy,
A drape on the mirror.
To bow to the cultural
Debate over the aesthetization of sorrow,
Of loss, of the unbearable
Afterimage of the once material.
To look for an imagined
Consolidation of grief
So we can all be finished
Once and for all and genuinely shut up
The cabinet of genuine particulars.
What is elegy but the attempt
To rebreathe life
Into what the gone one once was
Before he grew to enormity.
(“The Role of Elegy” by Mary Jo Bang, 2007)
The contemporary poet Mary Jo Bang published an entire book called Elegy, which included many mournful meditations on the death son. In this poem, Bang considers the role of elegy, and concludes that elegy is “the attempt / To rebreathe life / Into what the gone one once was.”
Test Your Knowledge of Elegy
1. Which of the following statements is the best elegy definition?
A. A poem of praise and joy.
B. A mournful lament of a dead person.
C. A two-line form of alternating hexameter and pentameter verse.
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2. Which of the following is not a stage of loss that an elegy deals with?
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3. How is the contemporary definition of elegy different from the ancient Greek definition?
A. Elegies since the sixteenth century have solely dealt with loss and lament, while Greek elegies could have a wide range of themes.
B. Modern elegies are only written with elegiac couplets, while Greek elegies were free form.
C. There is no difference between the ancient Greek definition of elegy and the more modern one.
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