Mole Valley Poets, 28th February 2011
Dympna Pyle: Elegies

The elegy is not a specific form; its meaning and usage have changed greatly over time. Nor is it the same as a lament, which focuses on personal grief and torment - e.g Auden, "Stop the Clocks"; Hopkins' "terrible sonnets" e.g. "Pitched past pitch of grief".

The elegy is generally seen as a poem written as a memorial to someone who has died, but this has not always been the case.

In Greek and Roman literature, an elegy was any poem using 'elegaic couplets': a hexameter followed by a pentameter. These were seen as epic or heroic forms.

(dactylic metre:: dactyl: one stressed syllable followed by 2 unstressed ones. hexameter: six beats. pentameter : 5 beats.

DUM dada DUM dada DUM dada DUM dada DUM dada DUM dada

DUM dada DUM dada DUM dada DUM dada DUM dada)

Very few English writers used these classical forms and metres; but the term elegy was used in England from the 16th cent for reflective poems. Some of these were love poems rather than poems of mourning. (eg John Donne "The Dreame" ) .

Elegies were also written as memorials, which is the meaning that has persisted. As in society and general custom, there were certain agreed parameters: de mortuis nil nisi bonum; and death was seen within a framework of religion and belief in an afterlife.

Originally these elegies were not personal, but elevated, a sort of panegyric ennobled by classical or pastoral references etc. Traditionally, these elegies followed a three-fold pattern:

  1. expressing grief and sorrow
  2. praise and admiration, often in an idealised form
  3. consolation and solace - often religious, sometimes linked to the renewal of life in nature.

Examples of this can be seen at the end of Milton's "Lycidas": (1637)

"So Lycidas sank low, but mounted high"

"Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new."

or Shelley's "Adonais": (1821) in memory of John Keats

He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely:

The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are"

or Tennyson's "In Memoriam" (1834 onwards) in memory of Arthur Hallam

"Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all".

Elegies, often linked to symbols of death, were also poems of general meditation and reflection (sic transit gloria mundi). The best known of these, which became a model for a number of similar poems, is Gray's "Elegy written in a Country Churchyard" (1750).

There were, alongside these elegies, other poems of a much more personal nature, expressing grief and loss, e.g. Ben Jonson: "On My First Sonne" (1603); and Wordsworth's sonnet "Surprised by Joy." (1812). In some ways these seem more modern to today's reader.

After the Victorian age, when conventions of mourning reached a height of fashion, attitudes and accepted expressions of bereavement gradually changed. This was reinforced by the mass destruction and brutality that affected the whole of Europe and beyond with the two World Wars, especially the first, and the dehumanised extermination of the holocaust. In some ways, personal mourning was seen as a mockery, if not a luxury.

So here we see poems such as Wilfred Owen's. In the preface to his War Poems he wrote:

"My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory."

There was also an elegiac treatment of society itself, where everything could be seen as dead or dying. A good example of this mood is Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), or Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush" (1901)..

While some 20th century elegies follow the traditional form, e.g. Auden's "In Memory of W.B.Yeats" (1940), with its conventional tri-partite structure, others could almost be seen as anti-elegaic. While conventional elegies moved "from mourning into morning" as George Barker expressed it in his poem to his mother, others turned their back on such consolation. One example of this is Dylan Thomas's "Refusal to mourn the death by fire of a child in London" (1945), and Geoffrey Hill's sparse and bitter poem on a victim of the holocaust, "September Song" (1968).

Yet there were still, and still are, elegies of a personal nature, expressing loss and grief and trying to make sense of it all, though not always within a supporting framework of religious beliefs and customs. So we see Hardy's series of poems about his first wife Emma , Poems 1912-13. More recently, in The Haw Lantern (1987), Seamus Heaney wrote a series of sonnets, "Clearances" about the loss of his mother. Similarly, Douglas Dunn's Elegies (1985) and Christopher Reid's A Scattering (2009) are series of poems about their late wives.

Dympna Pyle
February 2011