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How Did Elegaic Poetry Originate?
Elegiac poetry traces back to the ancient Greek tradition of “elegeia.” This term referred to a poetic verse that is phrased in elegiac couplets, addressing topics such as loss, death, love, and war. When Romans conquered Greek lands, they frequently appropriated Greek artistic traditions, and elegiac poetry was no exception. Roman elegies, written in Latin, addressed similar topics as Greek elegies but gave special emphasis to erotic or mythological themes.
Elegy poems were revived during the Renaissance and eventually made their way into the canon of English literature. The English poets versed their elegies with greater emphasis upon death and loss of a loved one, while somewhat downplaying the eroticism of their Roman forebears.
The history of English language elegies is rich and varied. Some of the enduring elegies include:
- John Donne, “The Flea” (published posthumously in 1633). A romantic elegy using a blood-sucking flea as a metaphor. In general, Donne was bolder in his sexual descriptions than many of his English contemporaries, although it is relevant to consider that most of his most erotic work was published after his death, and often cloaked in literary devices.
- John Milton, “Lycidas” (1637). This is a good example of a pastoral elegy, meaning a poem that uses descriptions of nature to articulate feelings of loss and remembrance. As was standard for the London-born Milton, “Lycidas” is brimming with Christian themes.
- Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751). A somber meditation on death inspired by the 1742 passing of the poet Richard West.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats” (1821). An elegy written in the Spenserian style of iambic pentameter with an ABABBCBCC rhyme scheme. The poem memorializes John Keats, which follows in the tradition of authors using elegy to honor their literary compatriots.
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam” (1850). A Victorian-era elegy for Tennyson’s dear friend and would-be brother-in-law Arthur Henry Hallam.
- Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865). An elegy inspired by Lincoln as well as the loss felt throughout America in the aftermath of the Civil War.
- W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” (1940). Written by the British Auden to honor the departed Irish poet Yeats. The poem is divided into a lament, eulogistic praise, and solace for mourners.
What Poetic Form Does an Elegy Take?
Early elegiac poetry was typically versed in couplets. But, dating back to the eighteenth century, an elegiac stanza has traditionally contained the following characteristics:
- It is a quatrain (four lines)
- It contains an ABAB rhyme scheme
- Each line is written in iambic pentameter
This structure is only a loose guideline. Many contemporary elegies contain no set form, and even the nineteenth-century elegies by the likes of Whitman and Tennyson take ample liberties with meter and rhyme scheme.
2 Examples of Popular Elegy Poems
Many of John Donne’s erotic elegies were published posthumously, perhaps sparing the poet from the scandal he might have endured in his own lifetime. Donne’s “Elegy 19: To His Mistress Going To Bed” was published in 1669. It begins:
Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labor, I in labor lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th' eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” (1865) memorializes the recently assassinated President Abraham Lincoln and is a strong example of the nineteenth-century elegy style:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Learn more about poetry from former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.