While elegy poems are not the most joyful type of literature, they are certainly worth knowing about since they provide details to the reader about someone else's life. One well-known example of an elegy is Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."
Generally, elegies serve to mourn the loss of a loved one; but, they can sometimes be about different types of feelings of sadness, a general sense of loss, or even praise or celebration of a life, as opposed to solely focusing on death.
Studying, deciphering and analyzing the text of elegy poems is the most effective way to understand the form and the emotional effect of such literature.
Here's a selection from Walt Whitman's poem entitled, "O Captain! My Captain!" which was written in memory of Abraham Lincoln:
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Whitman describes the emotions that he felt when Lincoln was murdered, and he paints an emotionally evoking picture of the dead Captain lying still.
Read this more modern extract, which is from Paul Celan's "Fugue of Death."
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at nightfall
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
Once again, the reader sees the emotions of a person stricken by a deep, biting loss. Here, unusually, it is not for one person, but for all the people lost in the Holocaust.
Whether you have read the following poems before or not, reviewing them will provide a clearer understanding of what an elegy poem is and how it functions.
Some of these poems are quite famous, while others are not so well known. In any case, reading them will help deepen your appreciation for elegy poems.
An elegy poem starts off mournfully, but it should then move on to praise of the dead and finish with comfort or solace for those left behind. This is the standard format of an elegy poem, though some may differ.
To see more examples of the form of classic elegies and understand the difference between an elegy and eulogy, read Elegy: Definition and Examples