Elegiac Poems: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is an Elegiac Poem?
  • 0:37 History and Examples
  • 2:15 Elegy Moves Through…
  • 6:22 Modern Elegies
  • 7:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ryan Hultzman
Elegiac poetry came to rise in ancient Greek society and has endured to modern times. These reflective words of mourning, praise, and comfort often help people heal from the loss of a loved one or friend. Here is a brief lesson about this poetic form.

What Is an Elegiac Poem?

Everyone experiences stinging loss when someone dies. There is nothing that can fill that empty place at the table or the ache in one's heart. It sometimes helps to express that loss, and elegiac poems are generally written for that purpose. Many elegiac poems were created to assuage grief, to help in the healing process, and to commemorate the dead, or loss in general. In addition, elegies are poems of mourning that follow a specific pattern: grief, praise, and comfort.

History and Examples

As we venture back in history, we start with the ancient Greek elegy, which was typically written in the form of couplets and was meant to be sung aloud and accompanied by the aulos, a type of flute. Elegies could be only a few lines long or more than one hundred lines, and a singer told the story or situation to an audience or chorus. Note that the Greek definition of elegy was broad in nature and did not always commemorate the dead. In fact, elegies were often performed at parties.

As time went on, elegy came to mean a combination of grieving, praising, and consoling, as in John Donne's 'Death Be Not Proud,' written in the 1500s. Donne deals with his grief by defining death in the following stanzas:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Elegy Moves Through the Centuries

In the mid- 1700s, British poet Thomas Gray wrote one of the most famous elegiac poems, 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.' The following stanzas, written in iambic pentameter, demonstrate Gray's strong introspective mood, beginning on line 13:

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.

First, Gray speaks of those who lie in their narrow cells in the pastoral setting of the churchyard. He mourns that they will never again enjoy life's simple work and pleasures. He also warns the 'ambitious,' or wealthy, not to scorn the poor, as all men end up in the grave, regardless of their accomplishments and fortunes. Gray ends his elegy with an epitaph for a young man. Although Gray is simply passing through this country churchyard, he reflects on man's mortality and the strangers who are buried there.

Another famous poet, Walt Whitman, wrote one of my favorite elegies, 'O Captain! My Captain!' commemorating the loss of Abraham Lincoln in an extended metaphor. The first stanza reads:

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