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What is an Elegy?

Updated on September 1, 2019
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a Master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

What is Elegy?
What is Elegy? | Source

Definition of Elegy

The word Elegy has been derived from the Greek word elegeia, which is further derived from the word elegos, meaning a mournful poem. According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, elegy means a poem or a song of sorrow, especially for the dead. A.F Scott, in his Dictionary of Literary Terms, defines elegy as a song of lamentation over someone. Christopher Gillie has given an accurate definition of elegy in his book, Longman Companion to English Literature. He says, “Elegy is usually taken to be a poetic lament for one who has died, or at least a grave, reflective poem.”

In short, elegy is a sort of lament, a song of mourning or an expression of one’s sorrows and glooms. It is a poem, wherein the poet gives vent to his sorrows over the death of his close friend, relative or any other person. However, it should be kept in mind that elegy is not only limited to the mourning over a dead person, it can also encompass topics like places, animals, failure, lost love, antiquity etc.

Salient Features of Elegy

  • The most important thing that differentiates elegy from other kinds of poems is the expression of lamentation over the death of a person. The poet laments over the death of his friend or relative.
  • The speaker in any elegy would be the author himself and he uses first person point of view to express the loss of the person. The poet gives vent to his sorrows in his own voice, not through the mouth of someone other.
  • The poet always invokes a Greek or Roman Muse for help in the beginning of the elegy.
  • Allusion is also an important characteristic of elegy. The poet uses numerous classical allusions to explain how he, along with nature, is dismayed over the death of his friend.
  • Elegy is regarded as a type of tribute to someone dead. The poet pays high tribute to the dead person in his elegy by comparing his personality with different things.
  • Every elegy has a particular meter and stanza form. The poet tries to adhere to them as much as possible. Look at the elegy of P.B Shelley, Adonais, wherein he employs Spenserian form of stanza.
  • Exaggeration plays an important role in elegy. The poet exaggerates the loss of a dead person to such an extent that the readers are convinced to say that loss was of immense importance.

Definition of Elegy

Origin of Elegy

Elegy was invented by Bion, a Greek poet, who composed elegy on the death of Adonis. Moschus, another Greek poet and a follower of Bion, composed an elegy on the death of Bion. In English literature, we have Milton’s Lycidas, an elegy composed on the death of Edward King. Thereafter, we have the famous elegy, Grey’s Elegy and Shelley’s Adonais. During the Victorian Age, many poets tried hands on writing elegies. In this age, we have Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a unique elegy of over a hundred lyrics on death of Arthur Hallam. Then we have Mathew’s Arnold’s elegy, Rugby Chapel. In this elegy, he expresses his sorrows over the death of his father, Dr. Arnold, the founder of Rugby School. In modern age, the elegy is not confined to the sorrows over a dead person, it encompasses many things. Moreover, the death of a person is not considered to be a great loss for human being.

Types of Elegy

Traditional Elegy

Traditional elegy is an older form of elegy, wherein the nature is made to mourn at the death of a person. The poet employs various techniques to present the death of the dead person as a great loss for human being. It is pertinent to mention here that there are three stages in a traditional elegy. In the first stage, the poet laments over the death of a person and gives vent to his sorrows. He shows us in a much exaggerated manner as to how much gloomy he is. The second stage dwells upon the merits of the person and he praises him lavishly. In the third stage, we find that that the poet gets some sort of consolation after having dwelt upon the death of the person. W. H. Auden’s elegy, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats" is a picture-perfect example of traditional elegy.


What is an important feature of elegy?

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Pastoral Elegy

The word pastoral has been derived from a Greek word pastor, which has the meaning of grazing. Hence, Pastoral elegy is a kind of elegy, wherein the poet represents himself as a shepherd mourning the death of his fellow shepherd. As the poet is a shepherd in a pastoral elegy, he draws imagery from his environment to express his sorrows for his fellow shepherd. Pastoral elegy possesses excessive grief from beginning to the end of elegy. Thus unlike, traditional elegy, it ends with a note of grief and sorrow. In English literature, there are numerous examples of pastoral elegy. Milton’s Lycidas, Shelley’s Adonais, Spenser’s Astrophel, and Arnold’s Thyrsis and Scholar Gipsy.

Pastoral elegy is considered to be an artificial product of the mind of the poet as many poets are not actually shepherd, but they represent themselves as shepherd. Thus, it cannot produce emotional feelings, which are associated with elegy.

© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq


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    • Rafiq23 profile imageAUTHOR

      Muhammad Rafiq 

      23 months ago from Pakistan

      I am really sorry to hear that. May Allah Almighty give your family patience to bear this loss.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      23 months ago from Oakley, CA

      Very informative. I've recently written an elegy for my recently departed husband. However, my style is blank verse, and it doesn't follow the formal rules and inclusions you've included here; it is a pure expression of the pain of loss.

    • Emmy ali profile image

      Eman Abdallah Kamel 

      23 months ago from Egypt

      Informative article.

    • Rafiq23 profile imageAUTHOR

      Muhammad Rafiq 

      5 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks BillyBuc for your encouraging comments! I am glad that it helped you. Have a nice day.

    • Rafiq23 profile imageAUTHOR

      Muhammad Rafiq 

      5 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks BillyBuc for your encouraging comments! I am glad that it helped you. Have a nice day.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very interesting. I've never really known what this was, but now I do thanks to you.


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