You've probably heard of a eulogy. However, did you know there was a whole section of poetry dedicated to lamenting the dead? This is called an elegy. Learn more about what an elegy is and how it's been used to create beautifully crafted elegy poem examples.
Generally, elegies serve to mourn the loss of a loved one. But, they can sometimes be about different types of feelings of sadness, a general sense of loss, or even praise or celebration of life, as opposed to solely focusing on death. While elegy poems are not the most joyful type of literature, they are certainly worth knowing about since they provide details to the reader about someone else's life. Studying, deciphering and analyzing the text of elegy poems is the most effective way to understand the form and the emotional effect of such literature. See a few perfect elegy poem examples to analyze.
View a selection from Walt Whitman's poem entitled, "O Captain! My Captain!" which was written in memory of Abraham Lincoln. Whitman described his emotions when Lincoln was murdered, and he paints an emotionally evoking picture of the dead Captain lying still.
"O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead."
Explore this more modern extract, which is from Paul Celan's "Fugue of Death." Once again, the reader sees the emotions of a person stricken by a deep, biting loss. It is not for one person but for all the people lost in the Holocaust.
"Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you mornings and noontime we drink you evenings
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it turns dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete
Your ashen hair Shulamit we dig a grave in the air there one lies at ease"
One well-known example of an elegy is Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." See an excerpt of this elegy poem.
"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand'ring near her secret bow'r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign."
Not all elegy examples need to be sad. In fact, Jonathan Swift takes a comical approach in his elegy.
"His Grace! impossible! what dead!
Of old age too, and in his bed!
And could that mighty warrior fall?
And so inglorious, after all!
Well, since he’s gone, no matter how,
The last loud trump must wake him now:
And, trust me, as the noise grows stronger,
He’d wish to sleep a little longer.
And could he be indeed so old
As by the newspapers we’re told?"
Poet Ambrose Bierce also creates a parody in "Elegy." This poem was a parody of Thomas Gray's famous elegy.
"The cur foretells the knell of parting day;
The loafing herd winds slowly o'er the lea;
The wise man homewards plods; I only stay
To fiddle-faddle in a minor key."
In this elegy, Dylan Thomas proclaims the suffering and death that came from the World War II London fire. While he simply discusses one child in "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London," he's commenting on every life lost.
"Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn"
Whether you have read the different types of elegy poems before or not, reviewing them will provide a clearer understanding of what an elegy poem is and how it functions.
- "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" by W.H. Auden
- "To An Athlete Dying Young" by A.E. Housman
- "Because I Could Not Stop For Death" by Emily Dickinson
- "Death Stands Above Me" by Walter Savage Landor
- "Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
- "Lycidas" by John Milton
- "In Memoriam A.H.H." by Alfred Lord Tennyson
- "Carmen 101" by Catullus
- "Blake's Purest Daughter" by Brian Patten
- "Sonnet for Dick" by Kit Wright
- "Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed" by John Donne
- "Elegy XI: The Bracelet. Upon the Loss of His Mistress' Chain, For which He Made Satisfaction" by John Donne
- "Elegy III: Change" by John Donne
- "Elegy on Husayn" by Lynda Clarke
- "Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats" by Percy Shelley
- "Thyrsis" by Matthew Arnold
- "The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn" by Andrew Marvell
- "The Woes of Daphnis" by Theocritus
- "Amores" by Ovid
- "I Roamed With Anger Out Of The House" by Emmanuel George Cefai
- "The Golden Hour" by Shawn Greyling
- "You Don't Even Exist" by Usman Hanif
Some of these poems are quite famous, while others are not so well known. In any case, reading them will help deepen your appreciation for elegy poems.
An elegy poem starts off mournfully, but it should then praise the dead and finish with comfort or solace for those left behind. This is the standard format of an elegy poem, though some may differ. To see more examples of classic elegies and understand the difference between an elegy and eulogy, explore an elegy definition and examples. You might also enjoy famous quatrain poem examples.