An elegy, in literature, is a poem or song that is written in dedication to someone who has died. In its traditional form, it is structured in elegiac couplets. The meaning of the word elegy has changed over time. It was once defined only by the couplet form, as can be seen in poems like ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ by John Donne.
Nowadays, elegiac texts lament the death of this person. They often go into detail about the deceased person’s life, their attributes, what they accomplished, and who they left behind. There is usually an emphasis placed on what the world is going to be like now that they are gone. The word elegy comes from the Greek word meaning “a song of bereavement”. In the past, elegies were sung aloud and accompanied by a flute.
Elegies, as one of the most popular genres of poetry usually contain some, if not all, of the following features:
- Questions that discuss fate and the afterlife
- The connection of events within the deceased person’s life to a larger idea of the world in which everyone lives.
- A statement of comfort, usually of a religious or spiritual nature
- An invocation of the muse, sometimes connecting even deeper into traditional mythologies
Purpose of an Elegy
The elegy is one of the most important poetic forms. It is used to mourn, to overcome, and to discuss what comes after life. These poems tap into themes that are universally relatable. They transcend time and place.
Examples of Elegiac Poems
Example #1 The Truth the Dead Know by Anne Sexton
‘The Truth the Dead Know’ by Anne Sexton is a four stanza confessional elegy. As this poem is ‘confessional” in nature, it speaks to something personal. In this case, it is dedicated to the lives and deaths of the poet’s parents. The poem begins with a very clear epigraph telling the birth and death dates of her mother and father. Her parents died a very few months apart, making the loss all the more painful.
The poet desires her own emotions as she reacts to the death of her parents. She goes into detail about what she did after they passed and what conclusions she drew. Take a look at these four lines which make up the last quatrain of ‘The Truth the Dead Know’:
And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.
Here, the poet is discussing death. Not just that of her parents but that of all human beings who once walked the earth but no longer do. She does not offer the reader comfort, as some elegies do. Instead, she decides that the dead are nothing now more than “stone.” They are less alive than the sea “would be if it stopped”. The dead are solid and still. It does not matter what one does or says, this can’t be changed. There are no religious allusions or spiritual connections in these last lines. She dismisses any need to mourn or think of those who have passed on. They are nothing now that their souls are gone.
Example #2 On My First Daughter by Ben Jonson
This elegy was written after the death of Jonson’s daughter. It was published in 1616. Jonson’s daughter, Mary, died when she was very young. Unlike the previous example, this one does offer the reader some comfort. Although their child was with them for only a short period of time and brought them much sorrow when she died, she was a blessing. Take a look at these lines from the middle of the poem:
At six months’ end she parted hence
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul heaven’s queen, whose name she bears,
In comfort of her mother’s tears,
The poet does take some comfort in knowing that she’s safe in heaven, rather than suffering on earth. She has her “innocence” and she is with her with Mary, “heaven’s queen, whose name she bears”. The poet imagines his daughter safe in the Virgin Mary’s arms. The poem ends gently and touchingly with a reference to the earth that now covers his daughter’s grave. He speaks to it directly, asking it to “cover” her “lightly”.