What Is an Elegy? Definition & 10+ Examples

Have you ever come across a poem that deeply resonates with feelings of loss, grief, or remembrance, leaving you touched and maybe even teary-eyed? That might be an elegy.

Elegies have a unique emotional power due to their focus on themes of sorrow, death, and the passage of time. They often serve to not only memorialize the deceased but also to evoke poignant reflections on life, providing readers with a cathartic experience.

As we dive further into this article, you’ll find that recognizing and appreciating the elegiac tradition can enhance your understanding of poetry. This understanding, in turn, can heighten your enjoyment and appreciation of the beauty hidden in these poetic lines.

Let’s get started:

Table of Contents

The next time you read a poem that stirs a deep sense of sorrow or nostalgia, consider if it might be an elegy. 

What Is an Elegy?

An elegy is a poem that reflects on death or mortality, often with a sorrowful or nostalgic tone. The term comes from the ancient Greek and Roman genre of poems written in elegiac couplets, which had a distinctive metrical pattern.

Over time, the elegy developed into a more flexible form that could address various themes of loss and longing. Elegies are usually written in the first person and offer a personal perspective on grief. Many elegies end with some form of consolation or hope, but this is not a requirement.

Elegies have been a prominent part of literature across different cultures and periods, as they express complex emotions and provide comfort in the face of death.

The significance of elegies in literature lies in their ability to capture complex emotions, encapsulating the human experience of grief, and often conveying a sense of solace or hope amid the pain of loss.

From classical Roman poets like Ovid and Propertius to modern poets like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, the elegy continues to find its place in the broader literary tradition.

Elegy as a Lyrical Tradition

Elegies are part of a lyrical tradition that places emphasis on the emotional richness and expressive depth of the poet’s work. They often explore profound emotions, focusing on the grieving process and the impact of loss on the individual or community.

This poetic form allows writers to tackle questions about:

  • Mortality
  • Legacy
  • The meaning of life

Elegies may also serve as public tributes, commemorating significant events or paying homage to revered public figures. As such, they are important in preserving cultural memory and providing solace in times of grief.

Elements and Characteristics of an Elegy

An elegy can be identified by several key elements and characteristics:

  • Subject Matter

At the heart of an elegy is a theme of loss, which can relate to a specific person, an abstract concept, or even a way of life. For example, Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is an elegy for both Abraham Lincoln and the societal changes following the Civil War.

  • Tone

Elegies typically possess a reflective, often solemn tone, which can vary throughout the poem, mirroring the stages of grief or shifting emotions of the poet.

Example: W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” starts with a cold and detached tone, grows more personal and emotional, and ultimately concludes on an optimistic note.

  • Structure

There isn’t a rigid structure for an elegy. However, some elegies follow a three-part structure representing the stages of grief: lament, praise, and consolation. Other elegies may adopt different organizational forms or utilize specific poetic devices like refrains, symbols, or metaphors to enhance their meaning.

  • Imagery

Elegies often employ vivid and evocative imagery, making use of classical motifs or natural elements to articulate emotions and themes more powerfully.

The Tone of Elegies

Elegies use a reflective and often solemn tone to express grief, sorrow, and mourning. This tone can change over the course of the poem, representing the different stages of grief or the shifting emotions of the poet.

Use of Figurative Language and Imagery

Elegies frequently employ figurative language, including metaphors, similes, and personification, to express the depth of emotion felt by the speaker. Vivid imagery, often centered around nature, landscapes, or objects, is used to evoke emotions and paint a clear picture of the subject being mourned.

The Lamenting Voice in Elegies

Elegies often adopt a lamenting voice, expressing the sadness and despair felt by those left behind. This voice may ponder the meaning of life or seek solace or understanding amidst loss.

However, elegies can also convey hope, reassurance that life continues, and that the memory of the lost person or concept will persist.

Pro Tip: Elegies are not just about 'tears and fears', but can often be a celebration of a life lived or even a form of catharsis.

Famous Elegies in Literature: Classic Examples

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a classic example of an elegy in literature. Written in the mid-18th century, it reflects on the lives of common people buried in a small village’s graveyard. The poem contemplates themes of:

  • Death
  • Equality
  • Loss


Lycidas is an elegy written by John Milton in 1637, mourning the loss of a friend and fellow student. The poem showcases several traditional elegiac elements, including:

  • Pastoral setting
  • Mythological references
  • The idea of artistic immortality

“O Captain! My Captain!”

Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! is a famous elegy written as a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln. Through an extended metaphor of a ship’s captain, this poem explores:

  • The end of the Civil War
  • Lincoln’s leadership and sacrifice
  • The nation’s grief

“In Memory of W.B. Yeats”

In W.H. Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats, he commemorates the death and legacy of fellow poet William Butler Yeats. The elegy explores themes such as:

  • The power of poetry
  • The passage of time
  • The role of the artist

“In Memoriam A.H.H.”

In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred Lord Tennyson is a collection of elegiac verses dedicated to the poet’s close friend, Arthur Hallam. Spanning several years, the poem delves into topics such as:

  • Grief and sorrow
  • The nature of friendship
  • Faith and doubt
Pro Tip: When reading a potential elegy, look for themes of sorrow, loss, or admiration, and pay attention to the structure of the poem.

Contemporary Elegies

Mortality and the Contemporary Elegy

Contemporary elegies continue to grapple with timeless themes of mortality and loss. However, in recent years, they have evolved to encompass not only the death of individuals but also broader societal issues.

These modern elegies often portray a sense of urgency and encapsulate a call to action amidst their reflections on loss.

Elegy in Contemporary Music

Elegiac themes permeate many contemporary musical compositions. Artists across genres incorporate the somber tone characteristic of elegies to convey profound emotions and delve into the complexities of the human experience.

Examples include Samuel Barber’s poignant Adagio for Strings, which speaks to life’s fragility, and John Williams’ moving tribute to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, aptly named “Elegy.”

Elegy in Modern Lyric Poetry

Traditionally a vehicle for emotional expression, lyric poetry has been a fertile ground for elegies. In the modern context, this form has evolved to encompass new dimensions, with contemporary poets weaving in themes of identity, culture, and politics.

Works such as Natasha Trethewey’s Elegy for My Father demonstrate the evolving nature of the elegy and its continued relevance in today’s literary landscape.

Elegiac Meter and Couplets

The elegiac meter, a specific type of poetic meter that finds its roots in ancient Greek and Latin poetry, typically consists of alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and pentameter.

While this pattern has evolved in contemporary elegies, the utilization of couplets remains prevalent. These pairs of successive rhyming lines create a sense of balance and symmetry, contributing to the elegy’s reflective nature.

The Role of Iambic Pentameter

Elegies often employ iambic pentameter, a meter consisting of five metrical feet per line, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. This meter imparts a sense of rhythmical stability and formality to elegies, aptly conveying the gravity of their subject matter.

Elegiac Stanza and Rhyme Schemes

The elegiac stanza, the primary building block of elegies, often takes the form of a quatrain, a four-line stanza. While rhyme schemes can vary, some typical patterns include:

  • ABAB
  • AABB
  • ABBA

These rhyme schemes lend unity and coherence to the elegy, while also accommodating variations in tone and emphasis.

Quatrains and Rhyme Schemes

Quatrains, as mentioned earlier, frequently serve as the structural foundation of elegiac stanzas. The employed rhyme schemes influence the overall structure and emotional resonance of an elegy.

Example: An ABAB rhyme scheme often infuses a sense of rhythmic alternation, while AABB contributes to a sense of stability and balance.

Therefore, the selection of rhyme scheme significantly impacts the overall effect and emotional resonance of the elegy.

Elegy Subject Matter

Public Elegy: Commemorating Public Figures and Events

Public elegies differentiate themselves from personal elegies by their intent to commemorate public figures or significant events. Such poems emphasize the subject’s importance and contributions while addressing the associated emotions of loss.

Serving as both a historical record and a tribute, these elegies play a vital role in preserving the memory of the person or event in focus.

Pastoral Elegy: Nature and Loss Intersect

In a pastoral elegy, the poet creatively relates the subject — often the death of an individual — to nature and pastoral settings. The poem may traverse themes such as life’s transience, death’s inevitability, or nature’s captivating beauty.

Through vivid imagery and potent symbolism, the pastoral landscape often becomes central to expressing the grief or loss the poet seeks to convey.

Romantic Elegy: The Emotional Landscape of the Romantic Poet

Emerging during the Romantic period, the romantic elegy emphasizes the poet’s personal emotions.

While addressing the universal theme of death or loss, these elegies often revolve around longing, love, and the transformative power of imagination. They offer a more subjective take on the elegy, focusing on the emotional repercussions of loss on the poet.

War Elegy: A Lament for the Fallen

War elegies encapsulate the devastating experiences and human losses of war and conflict. Often mourning those fallen in battle, these poems highlight their heroism and sacrifices.

Serving as potent reminders of the repercussions of war, war elegies express the collective grief and loss experienced by the directly affected and broader society alike.

Elegiac Sonnet: Grief and Loss in Structured Verse

The elegiac sonnet is a specific type of elegy that adheres to the structured form of the sonnet. Following a traditional rhyme scheme across its 14 lines, it allows the poet to explore themes such as grief, loss, and death within this structured framework.

Whether focusing on personal experiences or broader societal issues, the concise form of the elegiac sonnet provides an opportunity for the poet to express complex emotions and thoughts in a condensed manner.

Themes of Elegy


Death is a central theme of any elegy, as it addresses the finality of life. In this context, elegies delve into the universal human experience of mortality and the mysterious nature of death.

Poets may contemplate the inevitability of death, question its purpose, or describe its impact on the living.

Lamentation and Mourning

Elegies often express lamentation and mourning as a response to the loss of a loved one.

In these verses, the poet conveys the intense grief and sorrow experienced by those left behind. Such elegies may recount the deceased’s virtues, mourn the absence of their presence, and explore the emotional pain of loss.

Loss and Absence

Elegies often focus on the theme of loss and absence, conveying an overwhelming sense of emptiness left by the deceased. This theme extends to the various forms of absence, such as the loss of innocence, youth, or love.

Elegies often juxtapose vivid memories of the past with the stark reality of the present to underscore the painful absence of the deceased.

Reflection and Contemplation

Another common theme found in elegies is reflection and contemplation. This theme often goes hand in hand with the theme of death as it encourages the contemplation of the fleeting nature of life, the passage of time, and the importance of living life fully.

It also allows the poet to contemplate the legacy and memory left by the deceased.

Praise and Celebration

While elegies are often seen as mournful, they can also contain elements of praise and celebration.

In these instances, poets express admiration and respect for the deceased’s positive qualities, accomplishments, or impact on others. This theme aims to provide solace to the grieving and celebrates the life and memory of the departed.

Nature and Its Cycles

The theme of nature and its cycles is often present in elegies, where poets draw upon the natural world to illustrate the transient nature of life. Through symbols like the changing seasons, blooming flowers, or flowing rivers, poets may convey the continuous cycle of life, death, and rebirth, highlighting the eternal aspects of existence.

Consolation and Hope

Elegies often offer consolation and hope, providing comfort to those who grieve by acknowledging the pain of loss while also offering solace.

This theme may center around the idea of an afterlife, reunion with the deceased, or finding inner peace and acceptance. It serves to remind readers that despite the pain of loss, life continues, and healing is possible.

Transience and Change

Transience and change is another theme commonly explored in elegies. This theme highlights the fleeting nature of life, emphasizing that change is an inherent aspect of existence.

Poets may use this theme to express the inevitability and uncertainty of life, urging readers to embrace the present moment and make the most of the time they have.

Remember, while elegies often reflect on death, they also encompass a broader range of loss and reflection!

Dissecting Elegies: A Detailed Analysis

When examining classic elegies, one can observe the poet’s immense dedication to the subject, their emotional attachment, and how they utilize the specific characteristics of elegy to express their feelings. Let’s take a look at two exemplary elegies:

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” vs. “Funeral Blues”

Gray’s elegy, written in 1750, is a prime example of pastoral elegy. The poet employs the peaceful setting of a country churchyard to highlight the inevitability of death and the universality of human experience. Throughout the poem, he utilizes common elegiac elements such as:

  • Mourning: Gray grieves the loss of common people, who have not been recognized in grand monuments.
  • Praise: He elevates these humble souls, acknowledging their daily battles and simple joys.
  • Consolation: Through reflections on the fleeting nature of life, Gray offers a philosophical perspective to ease his own sadness and that of his readers.

On the other hand, Auden’s Funeral Blues exhibits a modern take on the elegy (written in 1938) while still holding on to the core conventions. Some of these distinct elements include:

  • Personal Grief: The speaker expresses profound sorrow for the loss of their loved one, emphasizing the void their absence has left.
  • Hyperbolic Imagery: Amplifying the depth of the speaker’s pain through dramatic imagery, like the speaker’s request to “stop all the clocks” and “cut off the telephone.”
  • Reflection on Mortality: The poem addresses the ephemerality of life, making the reader ponder their own existence and the people they cherish.
Did You Know? The structure of an elegy can often mirror its subject, with rhythm and pace reflecting the heartbeats of emotion within the poem.

Exploring the Impact of Elegies

Influence on Poetry and Literature

Elegies have held a significant place in poetry and literature throughout history. Their impact is evident in various forms of writing, including novels, essays, and memoirs.

Many renowned authors, such as John Milton and Thomas Gray, have written elegies to express their grief and explore themes of loss, love, and mortality. These elegies often serve as essential works that inspire other writers and contribute to the ongoing evolution of literature.

Emotional and Artistic Resonance

Elegies resonate deeply with readers because they tap into universal emotions of grief, loss, and the passage of time. By providing a cathartic outlet for these emotions, elegies offer solace and help people to process their feelings.

This emotional impact is not limited to the original audience for whom the elegy was written, as the themes conveyed in elegies often transcend time and culture, enabling readers from different backgrounds to connect with the emotions expressed in the poems.

The artistic resonance of elegies is also significant as it promotes creative exploration of themes and forms. Elegies enable writers to experiment with various literary techniques, such as the use of vivid imagery, symbolism, and metaphor, which can enhance the emotional impact of their work.

This artistic aspect of elegies contributes to the rich tapestry of human expression in literature.

Elegy vs. Eulogy

An elegy and a eulogy are often confused due to their similarities in purpose and their phonetic resemblance. However, they differ significantly in form, function, and context.

An elegy is a poetic form that expresses sorrow, grief, or mourning, typically for someone who has passed away. Originating in ancient Greek literature, elegies were initially written to mourn the death of significant figures or to commemorate tragic events.

Over time, the elegy has evolved to encompass themes of loss, nostalgia, and unfulfilled desires. Elegies are often written in a reflective and somber tone, using various poetic devices such as imagery, metaphor, and rhyme schemes to convey the poet’s emotions.

On the other hand, a eulogy is a speech or written tribute that celebrates and praises an individual’s life, usually delivered at their funeral or memorial service. A eulogist might share personal anecdotes, recount the deceased’s achievements and contributions, and express gratitude for the impact they had on the lives of others.

The tone of a eulogy can range from solemn to lighthearted or even humorous, depending on the personality of the deceased and the intentions of the speaker. The contexts in which they are used also vary:

  • Elegy: Primarily a literary form, found in books, anthologies, or as standalone poems.
  • Eulogy: Traditionally spoken or read aloud, often during a funeral or memorial service.

Writing an Elegy

Choosing a Theme

When writing an elegy, begin by selecting a theme to focus on. Common themes in elegies include loss, grief, and remembrance. Consider the person or subject the elegy is dedicated to, and choose a theme that reflects their life, legacy, or relationship with the speaker.

Structure and Format

Elegies may vary in structure and format. Historically, they were often written in elegiac meter or iambic pentameter. However, modern elegies may use free verse or other poetic forms. Choose a structure that suits the theme and allows for the emotional depth needed to properly convey the feelings expressed in the poem.

Elegy Techniques

Some techniques to consider when writing an elegy include:

  • Alliteration: Repeating consonant sounds at the beginning of words.
  • Assonance: Repeating vowel sounds in nearby words.
  • Imagery: Descriptive language that appeals to the senses and evokes emotions.
  • Metaphor: Comparing two things without using “like” or “as.”
  • Simile: Comparing two things using “like” or “as.”
  • Symbolism: Using objects or actions to represent abstract ideas or emotions.

Incorporating these techniques can enhance the artistry of the elegy and create a more vivid, emotional experience for the reader.

Step-by-Step Guide to Write an Elegy

Here are some tips to guide the process:

Step 1. Be Sincere

Tap into genuine emotions and let them guide the writing process.

Step 2. Know the Subject

Understanding the person or subject is essential to capturing their essence in an elegy.

Step 3. Choose a Focus

Concentrate on specific aspects, memories, or characteristics to create a more meaningful poem.

Step 4. Be Mindful of Tone

The tone should match the theme and contribute to the overall mood of the elegy.

Step 5. Revise and Refine

Review the poem, making sure it effectively communicates the intended message. Do not be afraid to make changes if needed.

Pros and Cons of Using Elegies

Elegies, as a form of poetry, carry a unique set of advantages and disadvantages when used in various contexts:

Expresses and processes emotionsMay not appeal to everyone due to specific focus
Celebrates and remembers the deceasedRisk of being overly sentimental
Connects with a broad audienceMay evoke intense or traumatic emotions


  • Expression of Grief and Loss: Elegies provide a cathartic way to express feelings of grief and loss. Through the use of vivid imagery and emotive language, they enable the reader and writer to process their emotions and find solace.
  • Honoring the Deceased: Elegies traditionally serve as a means to celebrate the life and memory of the deceased. They recount their accomplishments, virtues, and lasting impact, allowing the memory of the lost individual to be honored and preserved.
  • Universality: The themes of mortality and loss are universally resonant, which means elegies hold a broad appeal. They can transcend cultural, social, and religious boundaries, allowing for a more profound connection between the writer and their audience.


  • Limited Scope: Due to their specific focus on death and grief, elegies may be of limited use or appeal in other contexts. This may narrow the audience or constrain the creative latitude available to the writer.
  • Risk of Sentimentality: When crafting an elegy, writers may be tempted to overly sentimentalize their subject. This could potentially alienate readers who do not share the personal connection to the deceased or render the elegy trite and clichéd.
  • Potential Triggers: For some readers, engaging with elegies may evoke intense and potentially traumatic emotions. There is a risk that the raw exploration of grief within an elegy can trigger painful memories or emotions in the reader.

Elegies in Everyday Life

Elegies are poetic expressions of lament and mourning, often reflecting upon loss, grief, or the passage of time. In everyday life, they can serve as a means for individuals to process their emotions and find solace in shared experiences.


Musical elegies can provide comfort in their ability to convey the complexity of emotions associated with grief. They often combine melancholy melodies with poignant lyrics reflecting on life and loss, acting as a cathartic experience both for the composer and the listener.

An example of a famous musical elegy is Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Visual Art

Visual art can also depict elegiac themes, such as the transience of life and the inevitability of death. Artists throughout history have used their talents to express mourning and grief, often employing symbols such as the memento mori (Latin for “remember you must die”), an emblematic reminder of human mortality.

Examples of paintings with elegiac themes include Pieter Claesz’s Vanitas Still Life and Philippe de Champaigne’s Still Life with a Skull.

Cultural Practices

Cultural practices, such as funeral customs, also incorporate elements of elegiac expression. In many cultures, grieving rituals involve music, poetry, and art, helping participants process and cope with their loss. Examples of elegiac traditions in cultural practices include:

  • The Irish keening (a form of vocal lament)
  • Japanese death poems (haiku written by dying poets)
  • The Mexican Day of the Dead (a celebration of deceased loved ones through music, poetry, and art)

Ultimately, elegies in everyday life can take on numerous forms, reminding us that the experience of grief and the search for solace are universal human experiences.

By engaging with these works of art, people can find meaning, consolation, and a sense of connection with others who have also faced the inescapable reality of loss.

From ancient poets to modern songwriters, the elegy continues to touch hearts and stir emotions. That's the power of an elegy!

Frequently Asked Questions

Is an elegy always about death?

While elegies are often associated with death, they can also express a sense of loss or melancholy about other aspects of life, such as the passage of time, lost love, or the decline of a society.

How does an elegy differ from an ode?

While both elegies and odes are types of lyrical poetry, odes generally celebrate or praise a person, event, or thing. In contrast, elegies often express sorrow or lamentation.

Can elegies be written in prose?

Although elegies are typically written in verse, prose elegies do exist. Prose elegies often employ poetic devices, such as metaphor and alliteration, to create a sense of rhythm and beauty.


Elegies are more than mere poems; they are journeys — profound explorations of emotion and loss that beautifully express our deepest feelings. Serving as comforting guides, they help us navigate the often rocky terrain of grief, providing insight and connecting us with others who share our sorrow.

But remember, an elegy isn’t just a poem; it’s a voyage, a collective experience of loss, love, and at times, hope.

These poetic expressions, regardless of the language or culture they originate from, capture the beauty and universality of our human experiences. They bear testament to our shared emotions, uniting us in times of loss and grief.

Particularly in a world often marked by crisis, elegies emerge as beacons of solace and hope. So, let us now embark on a celebration of elegies and their transformative power. Let’s appreciate their ability to articulate our shared sorrow, to offer consolation, and to remind us of the endurance of hope.

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Jessa Claire is a registered healthcare provider. Music lover. Daydreamer. Thalassophile. Foodie. A hardworking Capricorn. Most days, an incurable empath. An old soul. Down-to-earth. Vibrant. When she's not writing, she can be seen relaxing with headphones on or engrossed in her favorite fan fiction book.