An elegy is a poem or song that is written in dedication to someone who has died. They tap into universally relatable themes.

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. They were also composed using elegiac couplets.

Facts about Elegies

  • They can go into detail about a person’s life, accomplishments, and who they left behind.
  • Sometimes the poet emphasizes what the world is going to be like now that they are gone.
  • Pose questions that discuss fate and the afterlife.
  • Convey a statement of comfort, usually of a religious or spiritual nature
  • Invoke the poet’s muse, sometimes connecting even deeper into traditional mythologies

Elegy Example #1

The Truth the Dead Know by Anne Sexton

In this fantastic example of an elegy, Anne Sexton elegizes her parents’ passing. Her mother and father passed away within a few months of one another. The piece was written in their memory but isn’t only about their lives and accomplishments. Instead, the poet expands the poem to talk about the actions she took after their deaths and her feelings about the dead. Here is the first stanza:

Gone, I say and walk from church,

refusing the stiff procession to the grave,

letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.

It is June. I am tired of being brave.

The poem never mentions the poet’s parents by name, except for the epigraph at the beginning. Instead, the poet alludes to the loss she’s suffered and speaks about the dead more generally. This makes the ode easier to relate to.

Elegy Example #2

Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats by Percy Bysshe Shelley

‘Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats’ is a more traditional ode. It focuses on a single person, the poet John Keats, who passed away at the age of twenty-five. He compares Keats to Adonais, a beautiful young man from Greek mythology who whom Aphrodite fell in love with.

I weep for Adonais—he is dead!

       Oh, weep for Adonais! though our tears

       Thaw, not the frost which binds so dear a head!

       And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years

       To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,

       And teach them thine own sorrow, say: “With me

       Died Adonais; till the Future dares

       Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be

An echo and a light unto eternity!”

The poet describes how the tears of mourners won’t bring Keats back. But that his fate and fame will never be forgotten. This ode has been hailed as one of the greatest in the English language.

Other Examples of Elegies

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