The Keats-Shelley Blog

5 April 2022

A Brief History of Elegy: Part 1 Elegies Before Elegy

Elegy Before Elegies

Elegy, it turns out, was traditional and not-so-traditional from the very beginning. Elegies existed before someone dreamed up the snappy name: after all, humans tend to invent things first, and name them afterwards, rather than the other way around. We know that lamentations or dirges were sung for the dead centuries before it occurred that someone jot them down on the back of a stone tablet or papyrus envelope.

For example, the ‘Songs of Linus’, sometimes called Aelina, which were named after Linus – not the blanket-carrying friend of Charlie Brown – but the semi-mythological Thracian singer-lyre player whose murder is one of history’s great unsolved crimes. The prime suspects include Apollo, jealous about Linus’s talent, or Heracles, who was
miffed when Linus critiqued his own attempts at poetry. So great was the sadness upon Linus’ death that his followers sang songs in his honour. This set a trend that spread as far as Egypt where, according to Herodotus, songs were sung to Maneros (Linus in Egyptian).

Or one might look at the ‘mourning women’, also called ‘wailing women’, mentioned in the Biblical Book of Jeremiah (9.18) whose raison d’etre was to lament the dead: ‘And let them make haste and take up a wailing for us, that our eyes may run down with tears and our eyelids gush out with waters.’


Similarly ancient memorial weeping has been recorded across the world in the Laments for Urim (circa 2000 BC) and Al-Khansa’s lament for her brothers (c. 615), in an anonymous elegy written in Assyria that could date from 900 BC and the work of the poet Sappho (c. 600 BC).

Quite when ‘elegy’ was coined to describe the songs sung by these mourning wailers is uncertain. Some credit Archilochus (c. 680 BC) as its innovator, if not its inventor. Others namecheck Callinus (c. 630 BC) and Tyrtaeus (c. 660-630 BC) who both specialised in threnodies for the war dead. Part of the problem with fixing these origins more precisely is the lack of available evidence. Hardly any of Archilochus’ poetry has survived, and the fragments we have of Callinus’ elegies sound positively bizarre without the context:

and remember if e’er to Thee fair thighs of oxen [Smyrnaeans have burnt.]

Another challenge in pinning these ancient elegies down is that they accomplished far more than sing songs of grief and mourning.