The Keats-Shelley Blog

6 April 2022

A Brief History of Elegy: Introduction What is an elegy?

1. What is an elegy?

It’s a good question. Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:

a. A song or poem of lamentation, esp. for the dead; a memorial poem.

This broad definition is probably what most of us think about when we think about the word elegy. A sad, mournful poem or song, inspired by the death of a particular person or group of people, that can express grief, aspires to an act of remembrance and perhaps attempts to direct the reader towards the prospect of healing. The OED version is more or less a literal English translation of the Greek word ἔλεγος or elegos, which Dr Johnson included in his own dictionary as ‘a mournful song’. Elegos is itself a translation: of ‘e e legein’ which (according to Richard Lyne’s Latin Primer from 1817) means ‘say, alas! alas!’

This explains why many of the greatest elegies were inspired by the deaths of children, of those who died young (like John Keats and indeed Percy Bysshe Shelley) or those who died suddenly or violently. Deaths in other words that distort the natural order and indeed nature itself, that compel the living to reassess their relationship with the world, that force us to remember or perceive for the first time hard truths about mortality and the human condition. Here is a second vital part of the elegy: the prominent role of the elegist – the grief-stricken mourner as well as the mourned.

Expressing the pain inflicted by loss is central to the elegy and distinguishes it from its funereal sibling forms: the epitaph, obituary, eulogy, dirge, obsequy, and threnody. While all these forms pay tribute to someone, or something, that has been lost, the elegy mourns someone, or something, whose absence is being keenly, almost unbearably felt in the present.

All these definitions would suit the tone and content of modern elegies like:

But they also work for an older, more formal tradition that might include

Shelley’s poem knowingly acknowledges its debts to the ‘Pastoral Elegy’, whose roots extend back possibly as far as 7th century BC, and certainly to the 3rd century BC and the Idylls of Theocritus. The fact that Theocritus is himself shrouded in mystery (he possibly lived in Kos or Syracuse or Sicily or Alexandria) who may in actual fact have written the Idylls that made him famous begins our history of elegy on an appropriately uncertain note.

The main factor distinguishing these older elegies from their modern equivalents is form. There is still plenty of variation within this older tradition: compare the different poetic forms used by Ben Jonson in On My First Sonne, Shelley in Adonais and Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in an English Country Churchyard. But by the time Shelley began his elegy for John Keats, there was a fundamental structural convention in place:

1. Lamentation: an expression of sorrow for the deceased (‘I weep for Adonais—he is dead!’).

2. Eulogy: praise and remembrance of the deceased (‘Thy extreme hope, the loveliest and the last,/The bloom, whose petals nipp’d before they blew/Died on the promise of the fruit, is waste).

3. Consolation: the elegist looks forward by finding solace in their loss (and perhaps finds solace by looking forward). ‘Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,/The soul of Adonais, like a star, /Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.’


Contrast this with the abstract expressions of a poem like Mong-Lan’s Elegy (2005):

& what if hope crashes through the door what if
that lasts a somersault?
hope for serendipity
even if a series of meals were all between us
even if the aeons lined up out
of order
what are years if not measured by trees

Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Elton John, Theocritus: however we try to define elegy, it clearly covers a lot of ground. Or as the Academy of American Poets puts it: ‘Many modern
elegies have been written not out of a sense of personal grief, but rather a broad feeling of loss and metaphysical sadness.’ Indeed, arguably the only motif common to all the definitions I have read over the past few months is how hard it is to define elegy definitively. Or as JC Bailey puts this in his 1900 collection of English elegies: ‘It is not easy to say quite exactly what an elegy is.’ Couldn’t agree more JC.