Elegy: Definition, Meaning and Significance

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      The term elegy comes from the Greek elegos, ‘lament’. It means a mournful poem written in elegiac couplets and covering a wide range of subject matter (death, love, war). An elegy is an expression of grief. It is a song of mourning generally expressing the rueful reaction of one’s heart on the death of his nearest and dearest one. It was originally the form of poetry on the subject of sadness, especially ‘complaints about love’. An elegy is such a mournful poem, which is usually written in remembrance of a lost one for a funeral or as a lament. Elegies are composed by the poets as if to compensate the loss of very important person or matter. Loss of some nearest one is very common to people. In such case, nothing or none can fill up the empty place or perpetual absence of that very dead person in someone’s heart. But for the poets, it is the elegy that can be treated as self-consoling outburst of the bereavement. So, many elegiac poems were created to assuage grief, to help in the healing process, and to commemorate the dead, or loss in general.

      An elegy tells the traffic story of an individual, or an individual’s loss, rather than the collective story of a people, which can be found in epic poetry. An elegy generally combines three stages of loss: first there is grief, then praise of the dead one, and finally consolation. Both in the Greek and Latin literatures, the term ‘elegos’ was applied to all poems written in a particular meter (called the elegiac). The subject matter of an elegy might be various, such as personal, sentimental, serious and sad. Gradually its scope becomes limited. Now the word normally refers to the poems written on the subject of death of someone or great loss of any kind. Other than epitaphs, examples of ancient elegy as a poem of mourning include Catullus’ Carmen 101 on his dead brother, and elegies by Propertius on his dead mistress Cynthia and a matriarch of the prominent Cornelian family. Ovid wrote elegies bemoaning his exile, which he likened to a death. The forms of elegies we see today were introduced in the 16th century. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd by Walt Whitman are the two most popular examples of elegy in English literature. Some others are John Milton’s Lycidas, W.H. Auden’s In Memory of W.B. Yeats, and Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain!

Elegy in English

      Now-a-days, the term elegy in English literature contains three elements as reflectivity, subjectivity and pensiveness. Elegy is a reflective poem in which poet muses on certain aspects of life and the world. In English literature, the more modern and restricted meaning, of a lament for a departed beloved or tragic event, has been current only since the 16th century. The broader concept was still employed by John Donne for his elegies, written in the early 17th century. This looser concept is especially evident in the Old English Exeter Book (1000 CE) which contains ‘serious meditative’ and well-known poems such as The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament, The Ruin, Wulf and Eadwacer, Deor’s Lament and Husband’s Message. The poems share certain themes and concerns - the passage of time and the transience of earthly things, the pain of exile and separation, the ache of absence and longing - as well as certain images and scenes such as ruined or abandoned buildings, desolate landscapes, storms at sea, darkness, night and the chill of winter. These themes, and the traditional language in which they are presented, are found in other Old English poems - certain passages of Beowulf may be called ‘elegiac’, if not outright ‘elegy’ - and the contemplation of earthly instability sometimes seems to pervade Old English literature. The tone and language of elegy may have roots deep in the traditions of Germanic poetry, but it is also influenced by late classical works such as Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy; the recognition that the “world under the heavens” is a place of tragic impermanence would probably be regarded as equally good Christian doctrine and pagan wisdom. Most of the Old English elegies are monologues spoken by an unidentified character whose situation is unclear but who seems to be cut off from human society and the comforts of home and friendship. But even though they share the poetic language of exile and longing, each poem has its own shape and purpose, and each makes its own statement about the problems and possibilities of earthly life.

      In The Wanderer, there is the lamentation of a young man, who had lost his patron lord, and wanders over the waters to find a resting place. He dreams of his older days and consoles himself thinking that this is the universal truth of man and his sufferings are but a part of the general order of the society. The Seafarer, the most original of the lyrics, is usually taken as dialogue between an old man who knows the joyless life of the sea and a young man who will not be deterred from maritime adventure by the melancholy tale of the old seaman. The Seafarer seems to be in two distinct parts, the first showing the hardships of ocean life and the second part is an allegory, in which the trouble of the seamen are symbols of the troubles of this life, and calls of the ocean is the call of soul to God. The another elegy, The Wife’s Complaint is the lamentation of a slandered woman who is banished from the sight of her beloved and is condemned to dwell in a grove in the wood. She has badly suffered for her faithfulness. She imagines her lover sitting under a cliff over frosted by the storm. The Ruin is written by an unknown author probably in the 8th or 9th century, and published in the 10th century in the Exeter Book. The poem evokes the former glory of a ruined city by juxtaposing the grand, lively past state with the decaying present. It is the series of monotonous laments over the ruin of a town, which was once magnificent but now in decay. A poet comes to visit the remains of this splendid town long before the days of its splendor and is grieved by the unhappy sight of this ruined Burg. The poem truly strikes the note of nostalgic melancholy. Consisting of 19 lines in the Exeter Book, the Wulf and Eadwacer is the story of a woman, perhaps captive in a foreign land. She yearns for her lover wulf and recoils the thought of her detested husband Eadwacer. The poem is unique in the Old English literature for its passionate sex-intrigue without any Christian element in it. Deor’s Lament is the picture of saxon scop, not in glad wandering, but in many sorrow, for his living entity. The Husband's Message tells the story of a man who was forced to leave his homeland and his wife due to a feud. The poem takes place after the feud has ended. The supposedly now wealthy and established husband carves a message onto a plank or staff of wood and sends it to his wife or his betrothed, the exact relationship between the man and woman is never specified, recounting the past years without her, reflecting on his past misfortunes, professing his love for her and imploring her to reunite with him at his new home. Thus, the message becomes the physical plank of wood itself. According to Rick Garden, there is connection between The Husband’s Message and The Wife’s Complaint.

      However, in these elegies, the narrators use the lyrical ‘I’ to describe their own personal and mournful experiences. They tell the story of the individual rather than the collective lore of his or her people as epic poetry seeks to tell. These poems display similar qualities, being meditative in character, and perhaps can be called monologues. So, for Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others, the term ‘elegy’ had come to mean “serious meditative poem”. As time went on, elegy came to mean a combination of grieving, praising, and consoling, as in John Donne’s Death Be Not Proud, written in the 1500s. Donne deals with his grief by defining death in the following stanzas:

“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.”

      In the 18th century the English Graveyard School of poets wrote generalized reflections on death and immortality, combining gloomy sometimes ghoulish imagery of human impermanence with philosophical speculation. Representative works are Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1742-45) and Robert Blair’s Grave (1743), but the famous examples of this type elegy are Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1750) and Arnold’s Seliolar Gipsy, where the poets’ serious reflection touches the universal truth of life. There is a serious dissection of the strong disease of modern life on which the poet muses. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a famous example of elegy written by Thomas Gray after the death of his friend, the poet Richard West. The elegy is a meditation on death that opens in a solemn churchyard. It pays tribute to the generations of humble and unknown villagers buried in a church cemetery. In the United State, a counterpart to the graveyard mode is found in William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis (1817). A wholly new treatment of the conventional pathetic fallacy of attributing grief to nature is achieved in Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Loom’d (1865-66).

      Tennyson, in his In Memoriam shows a very long series of meditations upon the death of Arthur Henry Hallam, his college friend, who died at Vienna in 1833. Upon this elegiac theme he brooded over for years. Arnold’s The Scholar Gipsy well testified to his disgust at the growing materialism of the Victorian age. Here he mourns over the death of Scholar Gipsy who is intimately connected to the pastoral life. The poem is more an account of a scholar who oppressed poverty, abandoned his studies and went to learn the Gipsy art. It is an excellent picture of philosophy and art, in which Arnold has revealed his genius, both as grave thinker and as an exquisite poet of ever. Another famous poet, Walt Whitman, wrote a favorite elegy, O Captain! My Captain!, commemorating the loss of Abraham Lincoln in an extended metaphor. The first stanza reads:

“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.”

      Whitman explains that, the prize they sought by the freedom of American slaves has been accomplished; the ship had nearly come home and the Union has been preserved, but the captain lay dead nonetheless, lie goes on to say:

“O Captain! my Cnptuiti! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up by for you the flag is flung by for you the bugle trills;”

      The greater elegies ever written in English literature are Dirge on Edward IV by John Skelton, The Regiment of Princes by Thomas Occleve, Astrophel by Spenser, Heroic Stanzas on the Death of Cromwell by Dryden, Adona is by Shelley, Thyrsis by M. Arnold, Rugby Chapel by M. Arnold, In Memory of W.B. Yeats by W.H. Auden, and so on.

Significance of Elegy

      An elegy is a sad poem, usually written to praise and express sorrow for someone who is dead. The purpose of this kind of poem is to express feelings rather than tell a story. For example, Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a poem that reflects on the lives of common people buried in a church cemetery, and on the nature of human mortality. Elegy is one of the richest literary forms because it has the capacity to hold emotions that deeply influence people. The strongest of the tools elegy uses is its reliance on memories of those who are no more. Most of the poets who wrote elegies were evidently awed by the frailty of human beings and how the world completely forgets about the deceased at some point. However, the function of elegy is not as limited as it is thought. Whenever we take a look at elegy examples, what come to mind are feelings like sorrow, grief and lamentation; but, a study of the Latin elegy tells us otherwise. A great deal of genre created in western literature was inspired by Latin elegy, which was not always so somber. The most famous elegiac poets in Latin literature such as Catullus, Ovid and Propertius, used humor, irony, even slotted narratives into a poem and still called them elegy. Greek and ancient Roman poets used elegy also for humorous themes and satire. The definition of elegy became more limited thousands of years later, and was quite popular with English poets starting in the 16th century. Though it is not as popular in contemporary literature in the strictest sense of elegy, there are still thousands of mournful poems written in remembrance of loved ones.

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