Elegy : Definition, Characteristics, Types, History, Examples, and Importance in Literature

Elegy : Definition, Characteristics,Types, History, Examples, and Importance in Literature

Definition of Elegy

An elegy is typically a poem of lament which expresses gloomy thoughts of a person who is no more. It is commonly written in praise of the deceased and has an air of melancholiness around it.

 

The word elegy originated from the Greek word ‘elegeia,’ which means to lament or to be sorrowful. In Greek and Roman literature, any poem which was written in elegiac meter, meant irregular hexameter and pentameter lines was denoted by the term ‘elegy’. However, it was also referred to as the subject matter of conversion and loss regularly articulated in the elegiac stanza form, particularly in themes of love. With this concept in mind, there are certain poems which are referred to as ‘elegies’ such as The Wanderer and The Seafarer.

 

An elegy usually brings comprises of three stages of grief which are as follows:

  • Grief
  • Praise of the dead
  • Consolation towards the loss

In countries such as Europe and England, the term ‘elegy’ continued to have altering meanings throughout the period of Renaissance. The elegies written by John Donne, in the later part of the sixteenth century and the early part of the seventeenth century, are poems which are based on the themes of love. Even though they are related to the essence of elegy as sorrow, many of them stress upon variability and forfeiture.

 

In the 17th century, the term ‘elegy’ meant a formal and sustained laments in verse on the demise of a specific individual which generally concluded with a consolation. The medieval poem, The Pearl and Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess (elegies in the mode of dream allegory); Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850), and WH Auden’s In Memory of W. B. Yeats (1940) are some examples of this form of elegy.

 

There are some instances where the word ‘elegy’ is also used to represent the gloomy musings on transience for example, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1757) and the Duino Elegies (1912-22) of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke on the impermanence of poets as well as of the worldly things which form the subject matter of their poems.

Dirge Vs Elegy

The ‘dirge’, which means a sad song also exhibits sorrow on the event of death of someone in particular, however it is slightly different from an elegy in terms of being short, less formal, and generally characterized as a text to be presented in form of a song: Shakespeare’s “Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies” and William Collins’ “A Song from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline” (1749) are some good examples of the dirge.

In the existing times, threnody’ is used primarily as an equivalent of dirge and monody for an elegy or dirge which is offered as the expression of one single individual. John Milton describes his Lycidas (1638) in the subtitle as a ‘monody’ I in which the author bewails a learned Friend.

One of the main subtypes of the elegy is the pastoral elegy, which is a representation of both the poet and the person he laments, this individual in the poem is generally also a poet, such as, shepherds (its Latin is ‘pastor’).

Characteristics of an Elegy

The characteristics of a traditional elegy are as follows:

  • An elegy begins with a lament of loss of life of a person or loss of a thing
  • The sorrow is followed by the poet’s admiration for the person or thing lost, In the second part of the construction generally the lost person’s qualities and remarkable performances or activities are endorsed.
  • An elegy is a kind of a lyric which centers on expression of sentiments, beliefs or opinions.
  • The language and structure of an elegy is formal and ceremonial.
  • An elegy may be based on either the transience of life of a person or the attractiveness and magnificence of somebody close to the speaker’s heart.
  • An elegy may search answers to questions related to the nature of life and death of the body or immorality of the soul.
  • Sometimes an elegy also expresses the speaker’s resentment or rage about a loss or demise.
  • The last or the third stage of the elegy is about its consolidation. This element may be more religious
  • It is of various types such as personal, impersonal or pastoral.

 

Types of Elegy

1.Pastoral Elegy

  • of or belonging to the life of shepherds
  • of or pertaining to rural life
  • having the simplicity and serenity attributed to rural areas

 

Pastoral elegy is a poem which dwells upon the combined subject of death and sublime country life. This form of poetry usually includes shepherds who express their emotions. The pastoral elegy takes the pastoral or rural components and connects them to expression of sorrow on a loss. The pastoral form of poetry has numerous significant characteristics, like the solicitation of the contemplate, manifestation of the sorrow or the heartache of the shepherd or the poet; admiration of the dead, an outburst against demise, a particularization of the impacts of that particular demise on nature; and last but not the least, poet’s concurrent acceptance of certainty of death and at the same time his unflinching hope for immortality. Pastoral elegies have also been seen sometimes to have included a mourners’ procession, humorous deviations to diverse topics arising from decease, and representation by means of flowers, refrains, and pompous queries.

This poetic term was initiated by the Sicilian Greek poet, Theocritus and was later carried on by the Roman Virgil. Pastoral poetry found its advancement in many European countries during the Renaissance and was popular among the masses even during the 19th century. In the modern era however, poets like JV Cunningham and Alan Dugan worked towards re-imaging the pastoral elegy and giving it a new form. Some modern poets like, William Carlos Williams and WH Auden still follow the original form of pastoral poetry and they have written poems that withhold its traditional form and characteristics

2.Latin Elegy

Ennius introduced the elegiac couplet into Latin. Lucilious used the metre of epitaphs and other short poems descriptive of slaves. An anecdote in Aulus Gellius offers an early glimpse of elegiac epigram on erotic themes, Hellenistic in flavor. The career of Catullus and Ovid bound the elegiac genre’s most concentrated and distinctive period of roman development. In particular, by early Augustan times elegy emerges as the medium for cycles of first persons.

History of Elegy

Elegy was a prominent form of lyric poetry during the era of the classical Greek literature. Before the emergence of ode as a literary form, elegy gained a separate existence from a complementary song and was generally written in distichs, which means, in a strophic unit of stanza comprising a line in hexameter and a line in pentameter. Elegies were commonly seen as an expression of grief.

However, later the poets started to use elegies as an expression of other feelings like remorse or delight which was motivated by sensual urge. Not many Greek elegies have been able to sustain the vagaries of time only a few parts have remained, but various Latin elegies written by Tibullus and Propertius are still available in their original form for the benefit of the reader of English literature, Tristia by Ovid is a masterpiece of this form of poetry.

The elegies written in the modern European literature era, express gloomy | and forlorn feelings after some passionate experiences or they are enthused by reflection on insubstantiality of human existence. For Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux, a French poet, the elegy is mourning in funeral cloth. The original elegies which formed a major part of the English literature contained nothing but lamentations, however, with the changes in time, elegies were no longer considered as poems of lamentations. In Italy, the elegy was cultured from the Middle Ages after the manner of Petrarch. In Germany, the content of elegies has been supernatural right from the start. Here, it would be pertinent to mention two different types of elegies: first which was characterized by an end of the 18th century offering by Goethe and the second by a beginning of the twentieth century offering by Rilke.

Famous Elegy Poets

Some of the famous poets who have written elegies are as follows:

  • Thomas Gray: 1716-1771
  • Rainer Maria: 1875-1926
  • John Donne: 1572 – 1631
  • Anna Akhmatova: 1889-1966
  • Johannes Secundus: 1511-1563
  • Joachim du Bellay: 1522-1560

Importance of Elegy in Literature

The concrete definition of elegy only happened to take form during the 16th century. During the ancient Greek era, any poem written in elegiac verses, which had the potential to deal with a variety of subject matter, like love or war, along with demise was referred to as an elegy. Poetry written in the elegiac form which consisted of alternating hexameter and pentameter stanzas was used for themes which were on a smaller scale as compared to the epic forms of poetry.

Poets from Greece and ancient Rome even made use of elegy for themes which was based on humor and satire. However, with the changes, the definition of elegy took a more limited form. It started to gain prominence as a literary form during the 16th century. Although this of poetry it is not much popular anymore in modern-day literature in its strictest form. However, there are a lot of poems which are written in the memory of their departed loved ones.

Examples of Elegy in Literature

Example 1: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

– By Thomas Gray, 1750

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 :

Molest her ancient solitary reign.

 

Explanation: Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard was written in the memory of his friend, Richard West, is a very well-known example of elegy. The poet laments on the death of his poet friend. He contemplates on the inevitability of life and death consigns all men irrespective of their class and all people are destined towards a fate of oblivion.

 

Example 2: O Captain! My Captain!

– By Walt Whitman, 1891

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.

 

Explanation: Walt Whitman’s famous poem, O Captain! My Captain is an elegy written in memory of the American President, Abraham Lincoln. In this brilliant piece of work, the poet beautifully brings together a sense of forfeiture, admiration, and comfort in the very first stanza of the elegy. The subject matter provides a comfort to the readers and yet at the same time, it fills ones heart with grief and sadness as it deals with the demise of Abraham Lincoln.

 

Example 3: Fugue of Death

– By Paul Celan, 1948

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 hair Margarete

Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in
the  sky it is
ample to lie there.

 

Explanation: This profoundly agonizing elegy is a classic work of art by poet, Paul Celan. In his elegy, the poet remembers those who had lost their lives the Holocaust. Celan was privy and witnessed the same from a ghetto where he lived with his Jewish family. Though addressing a large group of people is not a characteristic feature of a typical elegy, yet Celan’s poem identifies the combined agony and hurt of a complete population.

 

Example 4: Jack

– By Maxine Kumin, 2005

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?

 

Explanation: Maxine Kumin’s Jack was written in 2005 and can be considered as an example of a contemporary elegy. He has put together all facets of loss in her elegy, however, in a reverse order. The poem begins at a happy note which depicts a scene of satisfaction, but ends on a serious and sad note as the poet, having sold her horse Jack and never coming to know of his whereabouts ever again.

 

Example 5: The Role of Elegy

– By Mary Jo Bang, 2007

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.

 

Explanation: The contemporary poet, Mary Jo Bang published a book, Elegy. The book is a collection of numerous sad musings on the death son. The main theme is that the poet ponders over the role of elegy, and concludes that elegy is the attempt/to rebreathe life/into what the gone one once was’.

Quick facts about Elegy

  • The word elegy originated from the Greek word ‘elegeia,’ which means to lament or to be sorrowful.

 

  • In Greek and Roman literature, any poem which was written in elegiac meter, meant irregular hexameter and pentameter lines was denoted by the term ‘elegy

 

  • The elegies written by John Donne, in the later part of the sixteenth century and the early part of the seventeenth century, are poems which are based on the themes of love.

 

  • In the 17th century, the term ‘elegy’ meant a formal and sustained laments in verse on the demise of a specific individual which generally concluded with a consolation.

 

  • In the existing times, ‘threnody’ is used primarily as an equivalent of dirge and monody for an elegy or dirge which is offered as the expression of one single individual.

 

  • An elegy is a poem which expresses gloomy thoughts of a person. It is commonly written in praise of the deceased and has an air of sorrow around it.

 

  • An elegy is very different from eulogy’ which is an account that is put together in prose.

 

  • The ‘dirge’, which means a sad song also exhibits sorrow on the event of death of someone in particular, however it is slightly different from an elegy in terms of being short, less formal, and generally characterized as a text to be presented in form of a song.

 

  • One of the main subtypes of the elegy is the pastoral elegy, which is a representation of both the poet and the person he laments, this individual in the poem is generally also a poet, such as, shepherds (its Latin is ‘pastor’).

 

  • An elegy is a kind of a lyric which centers on expression of sentiments, beliefs or opinions.

 

  • An elegy may be based on either the transience of life of a person or the attractiveness and magnificence of somebody close to the speaker’s heart.

 

  • An elegy may search answers to questions related to the nature of life and death of the body or immorality of the soul.

 

  • Pastoral elegy is a poem which dwells upon the combined subject of death and sublime country life.

 

  • Pastoral elegies have also been seen sometimes to have included a mourners procession, humorous deviations to diverse topics arising from decease and representation by means of flowers, refrains, and pompous queries.

 

  • The pastoral elegy characteristically impacts the reader with its most characteristic form. It revolves around modest rural figures.

 

  • Pastoral elegies have also been seen sometimes to have included a mourners procession, humorous deviations to diverse topics arising from decease, and representation by means of flowers, refrains, and pompous queries.

 

  • The pastoral elegy form of poetry prospered in Europe during the period of Renaissance and the 19th century.

 

  • Before the emergence of ode as a literary form, elegy gained a separate existence from a complementary song and was generally written in distichs, which means, in a strophic unit of stanza comprising a line in hexameter and a line in pentameter.

 

 

  • Poetry written in the elegiac form which consisted of alternating hexameter and pentameter stanzas was used for themes which were on a smaller scale as compared to the epic forms of poetry.

 

  • The elegies written in the modern European literature era, express gloomy and forlorn feelings after some passionate experiences or they are enthused by reflection on insubstantiality of human existence.

 

  • Poets from Greece and ancient Rome even made use of elegy for themes which was based on humor and satire.

 

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