Elegy Poems: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 Modern Example of an Elegy
  • 0:57 What Is an Elegy?
  • 1:29 Elegy vs. Eulogy
  • 2:33 Traditional v. Modern Elegy
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Carroll

Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.

For centuries, people have expressed their grief for the loss of loved ones in elegies. Learn how the elegy differs from the eulogy and how Don McLean's 'American Pie' falls into the ranks of Walt Whitman's 'O Captain! My Captain!'

Modern Example of an Elegy

And as the flames climbed high into the night

To light the sacrificial rite

I saw Satan laughing with delight

The day the music died

He was singin' bye-bye, Miss American Pie

Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry

Them good old boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye

And singin' 'This'll be the day that I die

This'll be the day that I die

Don McLean's 1971 song 'American Pie,' about the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in a 1959 plane crash, mourns the loss of three talented musicians, as well as the end of an optimistic and idealistic era in America. It is widely believed that it serves as an elegy depicting his grief over Buddy Holly's death.

What Is an Elegy?

Chances are, you've heard the word elegy before and you know it has something to do with remembering a person who has died, and you'd be correct. An elegy is a reflective poem that laments the loss of someone or something. Of course, losing someone can refer not only to death but simply an absence. As a result, elegies can be used to mourn the death of a person, the breakup with a lover, the end of an idealistic era or even the trading in of your dream car for the family-style mini-van.

Elegy vs. Eulogy

So, you might be listening to this and thinking, 'This sounds like a eulogy. What's the difference?' Well, let's clear that up before we move on. An elegy and a eulogy are so similarly spelled and used that they can easily be misunderstood, but their differences are fairly easy to identify. First, they are different forms of writing. Whereas an elegy is a poem or even a song, a eulogy is written as an essay or a short piece of prose. In other words, one is written in stanzas, while the other is written in paragraphs.

The second major difference is in the tone, the author's attitude toward the subject of the piece. In an elegy, the speaker is lamenting the loss of the person who has passed. In this case, we have a tone of remorse. The eulogy takes a lighter approach and seeks to reminisce about the person's best qualities during their life on Earth. This creates a tone of respect. So, Don McLean's 'American Pie' can qualify as an elegy because of its poetic structure and its elegiac tone.

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