Elegy: Definition and Examples by Famous Authors

What is an elegy? It is a poem or song that serves the purpose of a lament for or a celebration of a deceased person. It is sometimes confused with a eulogy. A eulogy is not so literary, rather it is a short speech that is spoken after someone passes away, often at a funeral. Both are often mournful or thoughtful, therefore, the main difference is the form in which the words are written. Furthermore, in its primitive form, elegies were not just simple, short pieces about the death of a loved one. In order to distinguish between an elegy and a eulogy, reading some examples of elegies and learning about their history is beneficial.

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Elegies by Famous Authors

Some very famous authors composed elegies in their day, other writers were made famous by their elegies.

Examples of famed elegies include:

"Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,/Compels me to disturb your season due:/For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,/Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer."
-"Lycidas" by John Milton
"For thee, who mindful of th' unhonour'd Dead/Dost in these lines their artless tale relate:/If chance, by lonely contemplation led,/Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate."
-"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray
"I hold it true, whate'er befall;/I feel it when I sorrow most;/'Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all."
-"In Memoriam A.H.H." by Alfred Lord Tennyson
"Here Captain! dear father!/This arm beneath your head;/It is some dream that on deck,/You've fallen cold and dead."
-"O Captain! My Captain!" by Walt Whitman
"With the farming of a verse/Make a vineyard of the curse,/Sing of human unsuccess/In a rapture of distress;/In the deserts of the heart/Let the healing fountain start,/In the prison of his days/Teach the free man how to praise."
- "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" by W. H. Auden
"If I cried out/who would hear me up there/among the angelic orders?/And suppose one suddenly/took me to his heart/I would shrivel."
- "The Duino Elegies" by Rainer Maria Rilke
"I have not lost my rings, my purse,/My gold, my gems-my loss is worse,/One that the stoutest heart must move./My pet, my joy, my little love,/My tiny kitten, my Belaud,/I lost, alas, three days ago."
- "Elegy on His Cat" by Joachim Du Bellay
"Sad, sombre place, beneath whose antique yews/I come, unquiet sorrows to control;/Amid thy silent mossgrown graves to muse/With my neglected solitary soul;/And to poetic sadness care confide,/Trusting sweet Melancholy for my guide."
- "Among the Tombs" by Robert Bridges

History of the Elegy

Elegies have been around for thousands of years. The earliest example of an elegy is "Idllys" by Theocritus, written in the third century B.C. This was an extremely long composition, of which he used a few examples of elegy throughout. About 200 years later, Propertius composed a collection of elegies, appropriately entitled Elegies. However, all of his pieces did not center around death, and he wrote many short pieces in praise of love as well.

Around the same time period, Ovid composed his elegies Amores, Ars Amatoria, Heroides, Fasti, Tristia, Epistulae ex Ponto. However, the elegiac form did not really begin to shape into what it is today until later in history.

In 1476, the Spanish poet, Jorge Manrique composed "Stanzas on His Father's Death." A selection of the middle stanza reads thus:

"Thither the mighty torrents stray,/Thither the book pursues its way,/And tinkling rill,/There all are equal; side by side/The poor man and the son of pride/Lie calm and still."

Manrique is making the point that no matter who people are during their lives, they are all fated for the same place: the grave. He felt that his father lived a wonderful life, but he laments that he is now in the same place as every other person.


The Elegy Lives On

The elegy has survived thousands of years of both minor and major style changes, yet the form is still in use today.

To conclude, some modern examples of elegies are useful for bringing the form into the present and giving hope for its future.

"I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it./Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning./What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want/whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss -- we want more and more and then more of it."
-"What The Living Do" by Marie Howe (1998)
Fragile like a child is fragile./Destined not to be forever./Destined to/become other/To mother.
-"You Were You Are Elegy" by Mary Jo Bang (2007)
"The air is bland here. I would forfeit mist/for hail, put on a robe of dandelions, and run out, broken, to weep and curse."
-"Apples" from the elegiac book The Broken String by Grace Schulman (2007)

However, once again, the distinction between elegy and eulogy must be remembered. If one composes a poem about a deceased person, then it may be considered an elegy. A eulogy is a speech that one gives, perhaps at the cemetery in the case of a Jewish burial, and perhaps at the funeral mass in the case of a Catholic ceremony.