Towards the Romantic (not romantic) Elegy
So then. How was the elegy of Thomas Gray transformed into the ‘Personal Elegy’ of Shelley’s Adonais? It might be worth returning to that OED definition of elegiac metre:
In Greek and Latin literature elegiac metre was used for poetry expressing personal sentiments on a range of subjects, including epigrams, laments, sympotic poetry, and (in Rome) love poetry.
So far we have concentrated our attention on the elegy’s ‘range of subjects’. Even more important for its future direction was the phrase ‘poetry expressing personal sentiments’. Whether an elegy was born out of love or grief, war or peace, the role of the elegist (the poet or singer) was as important for the poem’s effect as the person or people being elegised.
The foregrounding of the writer (and the writing) of an elegy goes some way to explaining its attraction for Romantic poets, whose work in whatever form tends to emphasise the imagination, emotions, and thought processes of the individual creating that work of art: John Keats is as prominent in Ode to a Nightingale as the nightingale; Shelley in Mont Blanc knowingly confuses the water flowing down the mountain with the movements of his own mind.
Adonais may today be the most famous Romantic elegy, but no one in the early 19th century did more to popularise the form than one of Shelley’s literary heroes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge’s own experiments with the form – like his ‘Monody on the Death of Chatterton’ – were inspired by 18th century poets like Gray, Thomas Chatterton and Mark Akenside, all of whom revived the ‘Pastoral Elegy’. Coleridge in his turn would inspire both Shelley and Keats, who would write his own elegiac sonnet, ‘To Chatterton’.
Here is Coleridge, writing as a critic rather than a poet, offering his own definition of elegy in 1835’s Specimens of Table Talk:
‘Elegy is the form of poetry natural to the reflective mind. It may treat of any subject, but it must treat of no subject for itself; but always and exclusively with reference to the poet [themselves]’.
Coleridge anticipates the OED’s ‘poetry expressing personal sentiments’, and in doing so locates the elegy as the ‘exact opposite of the Homeric epic, in which all is purely external and objective, and the poet a mere voice.’ One might ask how this distinguishes the elegy from that other deeply personal Romantic favourite, the ode. Luckily,
Coleridge has an answer up his sleeve: the elegy, he writes, ‘presents every thing as lost or gone, or absent and future.’ The lyric ode, by contrast, ‘delights to present things as actually existing and visible, although associated with the past, or coloured highly by the subject of the ode itself.’
We can hear Coleridge’s formation of a poem that ‘presents every thing as lost or gone, or absent and future’ in Tibullus’ lovelorn elegies for Delia, who exists not in the present but as a tantalising vision of future happiness:
True, now I’m suffering; that could turn around
If Delia beckoned me without a sound.