poem index

Poems for Funerals


December 02, 2004
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The elegy--the traditional poem for mourning--began in ancient Greece as a sad song lamenting love and death, often accompanied by a flute and written in a specific meter. The form, however, moved away from its fixed metrical roots when it was adopted by Renaissance poets such as Ben Jonson, Alexander Pope, and John Donne. These writers made a distinction between a proper elegy--which expresses sorrow and a search for consolation--and "elegiac" poetry that meditates on loss, grief, death, and mortality in a variety of verse forms, such as the ode, epitaph, and eulogy. For example, Donne famously confronted death when he wrote the elegiac:

Death, be not proud though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. 

Shakespeare, of course, wrote a great deal about "what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil," and at about the same time John Milton wrote his famous "Lycidas," which appeared in a collection of elegies commemorating the death of a Cambridge collegemate. William Wordsworth wrote poems in the elegiac mode, as did Lord Alfred Tennyson, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats, and Thomas Hardy in the nineteenth century. The form was adopted and transformed again in the twentieth century by poets such as W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg, who wrote the famous elegy for his mother "Kaddish," which begins:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on
   the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I've been up all night, talking,
   talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues
   shout blind on the phonograph
the rhythm the rhythm--and your memory in my head three years after--
   And read Adonais' last triumphant stanzas aloud--wept, realizing
   how we suffer--
And how Death is that remedy all singers dream of, sing, remember,
   prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem, or the Buddhist Book of An-
   swers--and my own imagination of a withered leaf--at dawn--
Dreaming back thru life, Your time--and mine accelerating toward Apoca-

Some famous, and powerful, elegiac poems are:

"Funeral Blues" by W. H. Auden
"To the Dead" by Frank Bidart
"Fugue of Death" by Paul Celan
"Because I Could Not Stop For Death" by Emily Dickinson
"Dying Away" by William Meredith
"To an Athlete Dying Young" by A. E. Housman
"Death Stands Above Me" by Walter Savage Landor
"The Reaper and the Flowers" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"For the Union Dead" by Robert Lowell
"Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
"Elegy for Jane" by Theodore Roethke
"November" by Edmund Spenser
"Question" by May Swenson
"In Memoriam" by Lord Alfred Tennyson
"A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London" by Dylan Thomas
"O Captain! My Captain!" by Walt Whitman

Finally, a great resource is the anthology Inventions of Farewell: A Book of Elegies, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and published by W. W. Norton.