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What Are the Conventions of an Elegy?


In its most simple form, an elegy is a poem that mourns the loss of a person. Some elegies mourn the loss of a way of life, such as the innocence of youth or a period of political prosperity. The pastoral elegy mourns the loss against the backdrop of nature, reflecting on the cycle of life. All types of elegies share the same basic conventions, including similar organization and poetic devices.

The Lament

All elegies start the same way: with a lament. An elegiac lament is the poet's expression of grief or sadness. The poem may begin with some object or setting that reminds the narrator of the person or period being mourned. Throughout this stage of the poem, the narrator often indulges in outbursts of anger, including cursing forces assumed to be responsible for the loss, such as other people, deities or even fate itself. The lament sometimes includes a procession of mourners as well.

Praise and Admiration

An elegy is meant to mirror the stages of grief, according to the American Academy of Poets' discussion of the genre on Poetry.org. After the expression of grief and anger, elegies about specific figures move into a remembrance of the deceased, which typically includes high praise and admiration for the person. The elegy may even idealize the departed person. In the elegiac poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," W. H. Auden writes, "You were silly like us; your gift survived it all: / The parish of rich women, physical decay, / Yourself." The same conventions hold true for elegies that deal with bygone eras rather than people.

Ending With Consolation

In the final stage of the poem, as in the final stage of grief, the narrator finds some consolation or acceptance of the loss. For example, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" ends with these lines: "In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountain start, / In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise." In some elegies, the consolation may include an image of resurrection, such as the spirit of the person living on in his work or in the memory of others.

Poetic Techniques

Elegies also incorporate many of the same poetic techniques, such as repetition and refrains. Examples include the repetition of "O Captain! My Captain!" in the poem of the same name by Walt Whitman, and "your golden hair Margarete your ashen hair Shulamith" in "Fugue of Death" by Paul Celan. Many elegies are written in rhyming couplets or in stanzas with alternating rhyming lines. Elegies that follow these forms frequently use iambic pentameter -- ten-syllable lines that alternate between stressed and unstressed syllables.

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