What Is an Elegy?

An elegy is a sad poem, usually written to commemorate an individual’s death. The term comes from the Greek elegeia, which means “to lament.” Typically, one hears elegies at funerals; an obituary is the prose equivalent.

How Do You Identify Elegy in Writing?

What differentiates an elegy from the epic genre is that elegies are composed to honor a single person’s life, while epics describe the passing of an entire culture or way of life. Elegies are also shorter. Often, elegies represent a process of grieving with three parts: mourning, praise for the individual’s achievements, and consoling words for the living.

Although there have been “elegies” since the time of ancient Greece, back then the term meant only that the poem was composed of elegaic couplets, alternating hexameter with pentameter lines. The elegy as we now think of it, as a retrospective on someone’s life, is a fairly recent form, only developing in the sixteenth-century.

Examples of Elegy

Elegy Example 1. Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was written to honor the death of his friend and fellow poet, Richard West.

Elegy Example 2. Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” uses three stanzas to depict the standard process of grief, praise, and consolation.

Elegy Example 3. “Elegy for My Husband” is Toi Derricotte’s contemporary version of the classic elegy.

Elegy Example 4. John Milton’s “Lycidas” honors the drowning death of his friend, Edward King, through the use of a pastoral elegy.

Elegy Example 5. “To an Athlete, Dying Young,” by Alfred Edward Houseman,” is an elegy that, at the same time, asks its reader to contemplate how much we value fame and glory.


(View all literary devices)