How to Write an Elegy

Love letter

What is an Elegy?

An​ ​elegy​ ​is a poem lamenting the loss of someone or something special.​ Unlike an ode, which is a poem of praise, an elegy is a poem of mourning that describes three stages of grief: sorrow, admiration and acceptance. Elegies can be written for a specific loved one, a famous figure or an event that has triggered a feeling of loss. While ​eulogies​ are written in paragraph form, ​elegies​ often use a set rhyme and rhythm to convey grief. Elegies are a unique way to share memories at any memorial service and can also be read and enjoyed by generations to come.

Writing an elegy poem can be a difficult task; this form of poetry deals with rather sensitive subject matter and is meant to communicate deeper, more complex feelings and emotions that can be hard to put into words.

Here are a few helpful tips to guide you in writing a successful elegy.

Select a Format

Choose a format that best honors the poem's subject and is appropriate for the setting in which it will be delivered. For example, If you are reading the poem in a formal setting, you may wish to use the​traditional​​elegiac couplets​ ​of alternating dactylic​ ​hexameter​ ​and pentameter.

Modern elegies​​,​ however, use a ​more common​ ​iambic pentameter​ ​rhythm or a​ ​free verse​ ​format with no set rhyme or rhythm.​ Daniel Johnson's 2014 elegy for reporter James Foley, ​In the Absence of Sparrows,​ is a clear example of a modern elegy written in free verse. In this elegy, the poet does not use a set rhyme scheme or rhythm, but organizes the imagery into tercets or three-line stanzas.

When selecting a format, choose a formal or informal style based on the relationship you had with the subject. Also, try using ​stanza breaks​ to separate the ​three main parts of an​ ​elegy​​: sorrow, admiration and solace.

Express Sorrow

In the first portion of your elegy, describe where and when you found out about the person's passing or simply describe your emotional response to the news. Attempt to ​capture the grief and sorrow of the moment of loss.​ Using a metaphor may help you describe the event and create a sense of lament.

O Captain​​,​ ​My Captain​​,​ Walt Whitman's famous elegy in memoriam of the late president, Abraham Lincoln, contains a sorrowful wail:

"But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead."

The death of Abraham Lincoln rocked the nation, as it was an unexpected death of a prominent leader. These lines display the shock of Lincoln's assassination using the metaphor of a ship captain dying at the helm. This metaphor comparing Lincoln to a ship captain helps emphasize the devastating loss of a leader while the country (the ship) is left to pick up the pieces and move forward.

Sing Their Praises

In the second part of your elegy, ​praise the deeds and achievements of your subject.​ This is not about exaggeration, but about ​honest reflection on their unique attributes and skills.​ Brainstorm special memories, items, and events that were relevant to the subject of the poem.

Use all the senses in describing specific details, as this imagery will make your elegy unique and vivid. Be sure to mention some of the ​significant achievements and core values​ of this person that you hope others will emulate. These details will make the poem personal and memorable.

For example, W. H. Auden's poem, ​In Memory of W.B. Yeats​ includes honest and heartfelt praise such as the line, "You were silly like us."

Offer Solace

In the final part of your elegy, ​offer words of consolation,​ perhaps focusing on the peace that the subject finds in passing.

For example, in the final stanzas of A. E. Housman's elegy, ​To An Athlete Dying Young,​ the athlete continues to wear his laurel wreath in the afterlife and is admired by the other deceased. This part of the elegy focuses on the person's lasting impact and the legacy they have left behind, such as children or work.

Elegies are a way to create an artful piece out of something as tragic as a loss; It’s difficult to find beauty in the experiences that bring us great sadness, but with an elegy, individuals can honor the subject they have lost in a deeply meaningful and memorable way.

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