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Poetic Form: Elegy

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February 20, 2014

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Poetic Terms/Forms
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The elegy began as an ancient Greek metrical form and is traditionally written in response to the death of a person or group. Though similar in function, the elegy is distinct from the epitaph, ode, and eulogy: the epitaph is very brief; the ode solely exalts; and the eulogy is most often written in formal prose.

The elements of a traditional elegy mirror three stages of loss. First, there is a lament, where the speaker expresses grief and sorrow, then praise and admiration of the idealized dead, and finally consolation and solace. These three stages can be seen in W. H. Auden’s classic "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," written for the Irish master, which includes these stanzas:

     With the farming of a verse
     Make a vineyard of the curse,
     Sing of human unsuccess
     In a rapture of distress;

     In the deserts of the heart
     Let the healing fountain start,
     In the prison of his days
     Teach the free man how to praise.

Other well-known elegies include "Fugue of Death" by Paul Celan, written for victims of the Holocaust, and "O Captain! My Captain!" by Walt Whitman, written for President Abraham Lincoln.

Many modern elegies have been written not out of a sense of personal grief, but rather a broad feeling of loss and metaphysical sadness. A famous example is the mournful series of ten poems in Duino Elegies, by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The first poem begins:

     If I cried out
             who would hear me up there
                    among the angelic orders?
     And suppose one suddenly
             took me to his heart
                     I would shrivel

Other works that can be considered elegiac in the broader sense are James Merrill’s monumental The Changing Light at Sandover, Robert Lowell’s "For the Union Dead," Seamus Heaney’s The Haw Lantern, and the work of Czeslaw Milosz, which often laments the modern cruelties he witnessed in Europe.

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