Elegy: Definition, Characteristics and Examples

Definition of Elegy:

An elegy is a special kind of lyrics. A lyric expresses the emotions of the poet, and the elegy is an expression of the emotion of sorrow, woe, or despair. In short, the elegy is a lament, a lyric of mourning, or an utterance of personal bereavement and sorrow and, therefore, it should be characterized by absolute sincerity of emotion and expression.

The word elegy originated from the Greek word ‘elegeia,’ which means to lament or to be sorrowful. In Greek and Roman literature, any poem which was written in elegiac meter, meant irregular hexameter and pentameter lines was denoted by the term ‘elegy’.

Elegy is an expression of grief, and simplicity, brevity, and sincerity are its distinguishing features. There are elegies that are confined to the expression of grief as, for example, The Burial of Sir John Moore, and Tennyson’s Break, Break, Break. But more often than not, from an expression of personal grief, the poet passes on to reflections on human life – human suffering, the shortness of human life, and the futility of human ambitions.

A. N. Eatwistle writes in this connection, “Sometimes Death is the inspiration and sole theme; at other times it is merely the common starting-point from which poets have launched various themes – speculations on the nature of death and the hereafter, tributes to friends, the poet’s own mood, even literary criticism.”

Characteristics of Elegy:

The characteristics of a traditional elegy are as follows:
• An elegy begins with a lament of loss of life of a person or loss of a thing.

. An elegy is an expression of the emotion of sorrow, woe, or despair.

• The sorrow is followed by the poet’s admiration for the person or thing lost, In the second part of the construction generally, the lost person’s qualities and remarkable performances or activities are endorsed.
•Simplicity, brevity, and sincerity are its distinguishing features
 • The language and structure of an elegy is formal and ceremonial.
• An elegy may be based on either the transience of life of a person or the attractiveness and magnificence of somebody close to the speaker’s heart.
. Along with the expression of personal grief, there also runs theology and philosophy, as the poet constantly reflects on the problems of human life and human destiny.
• It is of various types such as personal, impersonal or pastoral elegy.

Famous Examples:

Thomas Gray‘s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is one of the most popular elegies in English language. In this elegy, the poet does not mourn the death of some particular friend or relative, but expresses his grief at the sorry fate of the rude forefathers of the village, who died in obscurity, unknown, unsung. It is a magnificent and complex work of art, dignified and solemn in tone, and not an expression of personal grief. On the other hand, Matthew Arnold’s Rugby Chapel is the poet’s direct expression of grief on the death of his father, and the elegy is characterised by sincerity and intensity of emotion. But from the expression of personal grief, the poet soon passes on to reflect on the sorry fate of humanity, and on the triviality and futility of human life. It thus becomes an embodiment not merely of the melancholy of the poet, but also of the pessimism and despair of the age in which he lived. Tennyson’s In Memoriam is a unique elegy in the English language. It is a collection of over a hundred poignant lyrics, united into a single whole by the poet’s lament at the death of his college friend, Arthur Hallam. The elegy is the epitome of the philosophical and religious thought of the age.

Also read: Masque play: Definition, Characteristics and Examples