Different Types of Elegy

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      Any strict classifications of elegy were not recorded in the classical periods. In literature elegies are often entitled to be of some different types. These types are decided actually depending upon the natures and subject matters of the elegies. Accordingly, elegies are often distinguished as being personal and impersonal. Elegies can be of some other particular types such as pastoral elegy, romantic elegy, elegy not eulogy etc. Although, these are some different concepts about elegies, it is also often true that more than one such concept can be applied while explaining a single elegy. To be more specific, if an elegy is explained as being personal from one angle, it can also be treated as a pastoral one from another angle. These are actually some relative dimensions of elegiac measure.

1. Personal Elegy

      In a personal elegy the poet laments the death of some close friend or relative. Rugby Chapel, for example, is a personal elegy in which the poet mourns the death of his father. It shows Arnold’s elegiac genius at its best. The elegies of Milton and Shelley are also sufficiently indicative for their personal attachment to their friends.

2. Impersonal Elegy

      In impersonal elegy, the poet grieves over human destiny or over some aspect of contemporary life and literature. In this way we get his philosophy of life and death. Thomas Grey’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard is a famous English elegy where Gray expresses the sorrowful feelings which arise in his mind on seeing the grave of the poor country people buried near the church. Since the 17th century, the elegy has typically been used to refer to reflective poems that lament the loss of something or someone, although in Elizabethan times it was also used to refer to certain love poems.

3. Pastoral Elegy

      A pastoral elegy is a distinct kind of elegy, which borrows the classical convention of representing its subject as an idealized shepherd in an idealized pastoral background and follows a rather formal pattern. It begins with an expression of grief and an invocation to the Muse to aid the poet in expressing his suffering. It usually contains a funeral procession, a description of sympathetic mourning throughout nature, and musings on the unkindness of death. It ends with acceptance, often a very affirmative justification, of nature’s law. Elegies written in English frequently take the form of the pastoral elegy. The outstanding example of the English pastoral elegy is John Milton’s Lycidas (1638), written on the death of Edward King, a college friend. John Milton developed the elegy from its Greek and Roman origins to be a poem that intertwines nature with sorrow and loss. The pastoral elegy involves classical mythology’s figures of harvest, abundance or agriculture, invokes the Muse and exalts rural life while reflecting on the natural cycle of life, death, and rebirth as it mourns the loss of a loved one. In the mid - 1700s, British poet, Thomas Gray wrote one of the most famous elegiac poems, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

      First, Gray speaks of those who he in their narrow cells in the pastoral setting of the churchyard. He mourns that they will never again enjoy life’s simple work and pleasures. He also warns the ‘ambitious,’ or wealthy, not to scorn the poor, as all men end up in the grave, regardless of their accomplishments and fortunes. Gray ends his elegy with an epitaph for a young man. Although Gray is simply passing through this country churchyard, he reflects on man’s mortality and the strangers who are buried there. Other notable pastoral elegies are Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais (1821), on the death of the poet John Keats, and Matthew Arnold’s Scholar Gipsy on the death of a 17th century scholar and his Thyrsis (1867), on the death of the poet Arthur Hugh Clough.

4. Romantic Elegy

      John Donne interpreted the themes of sorrow and loss as an experience with love and so created a form known as the romantic elegy. In the Romantic era (1830s -1860s) of literature, nature was seen to soothe lost love or grief. Thomas Gray is generally and rightly regarded as a transitional figure in 18th century poetry, providing a bridge between the poetic sensibility of his own generation and the Romantic revolution of the future. Gray’s Elegy is pervaded by an atmosphere of melancholy, which lends to the poem a romantic character. The poem, though possessing romantic qualities, bears also the 18th century neoclassical influences. Here he works within the rigid limitations of a four line iambic pentameter stanza rhymed AB AB, constructing stately and memorable poetic locutions while remaining strictly conventional in his rhythms, rhymes and diction. The very regularity of his heavy iambic beats help to create a sense of the timeless, changeless routine of country life. In style, the Elegy is traditional and neoclassical. But in ideas and attitudes Gray breaks new ground. He celebrates the worth and humanity of the common man in a way that foreshadows the Romantics like Burns and Wordsworth. He ruminates with romantic melancholy over “the short and simple annals of the poor”. Moreover, in the later part of the poem where the focus shifts from the nameless dead to the poet himself, we get a strong subjective and introspective emphasis that is startlingly new.

5. Elegy not Eulogy

      Many famous elegies are about the death of a person, but unlike a eulogy, which catalogs and praises the fine qualities of the departed. An elegy reflects on the experience of death in a more general and metaphysical sense. For example, in Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats, Auden writes -

“William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark.”

      This is not listing each one of Yeats great qualities, but is universalizing his death and reflecting on the state of the world. Traditionally, in an elegy all nature is represented as mourning the death. Here nature is represented as going on its course indifferent and unaffected. The great poet’s death goes unnoticed both by man and nature: human life goes on as usual, and so does nature. Secondly, in the traditional elegy the dead is glorified and his death is said to be a great loss for mankind at large. But Auden does not glorify Yeats. He goes to the extent of calling him ‘silly’ and further that his poetry could make nothing happen. “Ireland has her madness and her weather still.” Thus, Auden reverses the traditional elegiac values and treats them ironically. Although, apparently the poem is an elegy, Auden reverses and departs from the known traditions of elegy. He does not idealize Yeats as a poet or sentimentalize his fate. He proceeds to embody certain general reflections on the art of a poet and the place of poetry in the flux of events, which constitute human history. So the death of Yeats remains at the focus of the poem only to support the peripheral reflections in the poem.

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