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An elegy is a reflective poem on a serious theme, often on death. In English literature the elegy is usually a poem of mourning, in which the author ponders the meaning of death and tries to reconcile it with life.
In classical times the term designated a particular rhythmic pattern rather than specific subject matter. Greek elegies were often military in subject matter and convivial in emphasis. Those of the Romans concentrated on love as a theme. Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid (the most famous Latin love-elegists) became models for poets of the English Renaissance, who also composed funeral elegies of the type with which modern readers are familiar.
The elegy, with no specific formal requirements, has been peculiarly adaptable to changing poetic sensibilities. Expressive both of personal grief and of preoccupation with universal concerns, it often combines the particular and the general, the emotional and the intellectual, to create the fusions of great poetry.
One of the most famous elegies in English is Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Here the poet contemplates not only a single death but mortality in general, and he honors the potentially great people who live and die in obscurity. Shelley's Adonais mourns the death of John Keats and attacks Keats' critics.
Celebrated elegies include Milton's Lycidas and Tennyson's In Memoriam. Walt Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd is a moving tribute to Abraham Lincoln.
Other memorable English elegies include John Milton's Lycidas (1638), on the death of Edward King; Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751), a series of reflections on the general subject of death; and Percy Shelley's Adonais (1821), on John Keats. In the 20th century the form has become increasingly flexible. A brilliant example is W. H. Auden's In Memory of W. B. Yeats (1940). The love-elegy tradition, on the other hand, is moribund; the last important practitioner in English was James Hammond, whose erotic collection Love Elegies was published in 1743.
In music a sad composition in slow tempo is often called an elegy.