The word "elegy" comes from the Greek word for lament. The historical form is a melancholy poem that meditates on death through themes of war, nature, or the loss of a person. The elegy originated in ancient Greece and Rome and was recognized by its alternating lines of hexameter and pentameter. In modern times an elegy can be written in any metrical form, but the content of the poem must reflect on death or sorrow. Some famous elegies are John Milton's "Lycidas," Thomas Gray's "Elegy in an Country Churchyard," W.H. Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," and Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!"
The Pastoral Elegy
The English writer John Milton developed the elegy from its Greek and Roman origins to be a poem that intertwines nature with sorrow and loss. Milton's "Lycidas" in particular is considered one of the greatest examples of pastoral elegy. The pastoral elegy involves classical mythology's figures of harvest, abundance or agriculture, invokes the Muse and exalts rural life while reflecting on the natural cycle of life, death, and rebirth as it mourns the loss of a loved one.
John Donne interpreted the themes of sorrow and loss as an experience with love and so created a form known as the romantic elegy. In the Romantic era (1830s -1860s) of literature, nature was seen to soothe lost love or grief. Kenneth R. Johnston, emeritus professor at Indiana University writes of the Romantic elegy: "Elegies conventionally work with natural tropes to soothe personal pain." Many writers of the Romantic era used this form, including William Wordsworth in "Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont" and Walt Whitman in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
Elegy not Eulogy
Many famous elegies are about the death of a person, but unlike a eulogy, which catalogues and praises the fine qualities of the departed, an elegy reflects on the experience of death in a more general and metaphysical sense. For example, in Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," Auden writes, "William Yeats is laid to rest. / Let the Irish vessel lie / Emptied of its poetry. / In the nightmare of the dark / All the dogs of Europe bark." This is not listing each one of Yeats' great qualities, but is universalizing his death and reflecting on the state of the world.
The elegy as a poem that deals with loss, sorrow, and grieving is ubiquitous in contemporary poetry. As Jahan Ramazani of the University of Virginia writes, "... the call of elegy overrides differences in school, nationality, style, and technique." Modern poets from Thomas Hardy to Allan Ginsberg wrote elegiac poems, and poets Sharon Olds, Susan Howe, and Jorie Graham are among the many poets who bring death out of mortuaries and hospitals. And as Ramazani writes, such poets " ... have cultivated poetry as a death-steeped language of mourning."