What is an elegy?

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An elegy is a poem which shows serious reflection on the part of the speaker and typically laments the loss of a loved one. The elegy was popular in Anglo-Saxon literature and the most popular to the elegiac poems were "The Seafarer", "The Wanderer", and "The Wife's Lament".

These poems were also considered lyrical in the fact that they denoted the thoughts and feelings of a single speaker and spoke about the events in the speaker's life.

In "The Seafarer", the speaker is saddened by the fact that he has suffered pain and loss upon the "sea-lanes" (a kenning for the ocean). The speaker is saddened by the fact that all around him seems lost and he cannot find a place for himself.

The days of glory have decayed/ the earth has spilled its splendour/ there are no captains now, no kings/ gold givers such as once there were/ the lords who lived to purchase fame/ and utmost laud among their peers.

This stanza details the loss the seafarer has suffered. For him, there is no one left. This is the epitome of the elegy.


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An elegy is a poem that is usually concerned with the death of someone or, more generally, with the passing of time and the melancholy that this awareness produces in human beings. These two dimensions (a more personal one referring to a specific death and a more general reflection not linked to a specific death) are inextricably intertwined in the development of the genre. Coleridge was probably the poet who gave the most general definition of the term saying that it is "the form of poetry natural to the reflective mind".

Initially, in its Greek and Latin form, elegies did not specifically refer to poems with such content, but identified a precise meter. The modern meaning of elegy started to be applied during the Renaissance. John Donne, for example, used it both for a group of diverse satirical and erotic poems as well as for his "A Funerall Elegie" which clearly links the term to the mourning tradition. Milton's "Lycidas" (1637), on the death of Edward King, is generally seen as providing the blueprint for the modern form of the genre and for its combination with a pastoral setting peopled by shepherds, nymphs and satyrs. Shelley's "Adonais" (1821) and Arnold's "Thyrsis" (1867) follow this tradition, while Tennyson's "In Memoriam" is a reflection on a specific death (Arthur Hallam's), but does not share the pastoral setting. On the contrary, Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1750) is not linked on a specific death and established the prototype for general poetic reflections on the passing of time.

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