Elegy Poetry Form: Soothe Your Heart

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Here’s what the Elegy poetry form is:

An elegy is a poem type that explores and reflects on themes of loss, mourning, and consolation.

Elegiac poetry then is typically meant to grieve the death of a loved one.

So if you want to learn all about the Elegy poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s dive in!

Elegy Poem Type: Simply Explained

Forms of Poetry: The Elegy

red wilted rose lying on the pages of an open old poetry book.

Elegies, not to be confused with eulogies, are somber poems of a reflective nature.

Unlike many other types of poems, elegies are very ill-defined and could frankly be considered more of a subgenre than a form.

The most recognizable elegies are typically poems meant to grieve the loss of the dead.

Their distinction from eulogies and epitaphs is that they’re not meant for any particular type of occasion.

Whereas a eulogy is meant for a funeral and an epitaph is meant for a gravestone, an elegy is simply written to express a feeling.

The term is occasionally used to refer to any text with such a theme but traditionally refers to poetry.

Basic Properties of an Elegy

Open book and yellow flower dandelion on a old oak table against coral orange wall
Rhyme StructureOptional
OriginAncient Greece
PopularityPopularized by ancient Greece and Rome; remains popular in the western world today
ThemeLamentations for the dead

How Are Elegies Structured?

Sad young woman with a flowers lying on tombstone

The earliest elegies were written in elegiac couplets but were part of a blanket term elegaia, a Greek term stemming from elegos (lament).

This term was even broader than the modern usage of elegy and covered anything written in elegiac couplets, ranging from sad songs to poems about love and war.

Elegiac couplets consist of a verse of hexameter followed by a verse of pentameter.

The intention is that the first verse should represent the rising action while the second verse acts as the falling action.

This form was mainly used in ancient Greece.

Modern elegies have no predefined structure and this is one of the biggest criticisms of the classification.

Unlike sonnets and haikus and the like, an elegy can be written in any meter and any rhyme scheme.

The problematic element of this is that it, therefore, does not distinguish itself from the free verse in any way.

An elegy is, by its very nature, not truly a form. It’s a stretch to call it any more descriptive than saying something is “a love poem.”

Complicating matters further is that the term has not always strictly been about grief and sometimes simply refers to poems that have a somber and serious tone, regardless of the topic.

Regardless, the term has persisted and has been used on and off throughout history.

Elegies are a strange thing, in that there is little general consensus on what technical aspects make an elegy an elegy.

The best hint goes all the way back to the original meaning of elegos.

Defining it this way, an elegy is simply a poetic form of lamentation.

Elegies are now, for the most part, understood to be poems that deal specifically with the grief felt for the dead.

Example of an Elegy

Woman holding white rose near grey granite tombstone outdoors

A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General by Jonathan Swift

His Grace! impossible! what dead!
Of old age too, and in his bed!
And could that mighty warrior fall?
And so inglorious, after all!
Well, since he’s gone, no matter how,
The last loud trump must wake him now:
And, trust me, as the noise grows stronger,
He’d wish to sleep a little longer.
And could he be indeed so old
As by the newspapers we’re told?

This example was chosen chiefly to display just how much wiggle room a poet actually has when writing an elegy.

This particular ‘elegy’ is only an elegy in name and in the idea that it is about someone who has passed away but takes great liberty with everything else about the form.

Mockingly irreverent and disrespectful, Swift uses the vagueness of the term to its fullest exploitable limits here, writing a poem about how “inglorious” the death of John Churchill (the unnamed subject) seemed to him.

The irony herein is that because of the unspecific nature of the word, Swift can still safely argue that this poem, despite lacking any sense of respect, is technically an elegy by virtue of its content matter alone.

Of course, it is not advisable to make writing elegies that sarcastically mock the deceased a habit, for various reasons, but this is nonetheless an interesting spin on the form that brings to light the problems with having nondescript classifications in literature.

History of Elegies

sunshine piercing through autumn trees

As hinted at previously, elegies got their start as part of a much broader classification way back in ancient Greece.

This was the only noteworthy point in which elegies did have an expected form, being the elegiac couplets, but it was also the point at which the definition was at its broadest.

Like most Greek forms of literature, the Romans borrowed elegy for their own works and popularized it throughout regions affected by the spread of their empire.

Despite its abstract nature, the term has continued to persist across the centuries.

It lost some of its vagueness in the 15th and 16th centuries, when it finally came to rest on a theme of mourning the dead, though there are some noteworthy poets who continued to advocate the more general usage well into the 17th century, such as John Donne.

In this day and age, we tend to think of an elegy as a eulogy without a funeral.

That is, the poem is written specifically to honor the deceased and to describe our relationship with them and feelings toward their passing but is distinct from a similar eulogy in that it is not necessarily meant to be read aloud to the family and friends of the deceased.

As such, it’s not uncommon for elegies to be written about famous figures when they pass away.

An elegy may or may not announce the identity of the person whose loss is being lamented, though it typically will.

One more key difference between the modern elegy and eulogy is that eulogies are gradually moving toward a “celebration of the person’s life” whereas elegies remain strictly rooted in somber and respectful reflections of the dead.

Tips for Writing an Elegy

Female hands writing on blank notebook on rustic wooden table

As with writing a eulogy, the connection between the living and the deceased is the most important element of writing a modern elegy.

What did their passing mean to you?

How did they connect to your life and what have you lost now that they’re gone?

An elegy, by its very nature, is allowed to be a little selfish.

Even if you feel that they’ve gone to a better place, it’s only natural to feel that they were stolen from you and that they still belong here on earth, among the living.

An elegy is a chance to openly express those feelings so that it will be easier to let them go.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that an elegy should have no structure at all just because it has no mandatory form.

Poetry thrives on structure and your lines should reflect a detailed understanding of what effect the syllable counts and format will have on the reader.

Elegy is ultimately a practical application of free verse poetry, though, so it may be wise to research the most successful free verse poets and see if you can find the differences between the poems you do and do not like.

Most importantly, be sincere.

While this advice applies to all writing, it is especially important in elegy.

An elegy is meant to be a deep and meaningful exchange of feelings between the poet and the deceased, so you should approach the topic with a sense of respect and reverence.

The strength of your words will hinge on how honestly they reflect your own feelings.

A dishonest word forever rings hollow, but a sincere sentiment sings straight to the heart.

Poet’s Note

Pen lays on paper.

Elegy is more like a general idea than a specific group of poems.

A veteran will have a good feel for what does and does not qualify as an elegy.

However, it’s interesting that this form has been around as long as it has without ever having any particular formats imposed upon it.

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