Elegy Understanding: Definition, Examples, Traits
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. What is an Elegy?
  2. How to Identify an Elegy
  3. Traits of Elegies
  4. Examples of Elegies
  5. Why Elegies Matter

Imagine you're walking through a bookstore, and you come across a section labeled "Elegies." You might be wondering, "What's an elegy?" Well, you're in the right place to find out. In this blog, we're going to dissect the definition of elegy, explore its unique traits, dive into some classic examples, and discuss why it matters in literature. So, let's jump right into it.

What is an Elegy?

We often turn to words to express our emotions when life gets tough. In the realm of literature, an elegy serves as a vessel for such expressions, particularly those of sorrow and loss. But what exactly is an elegy? Let's discuss that in detail.

Basic Definition

An elegy is, in its simplest form, a poem or a song of serious reflection. It's typically a lament for the dead, helping the living articulate their feelings and pay tribute to those who have passed away. This definition of elegy is the one most commonly used in modern literature.

The Classical Elegy

The term 'elegy' has its roots in Greek and Roman poetry. Here, an elegy was a poem written in elegiac couplets, a specific form of poetic meter. Some notable poets like Catullus and Propertius were known for their elegiac poetry. While this ancient definition of elegy is less common today, it's a crucial part of the elegy's history.

Keywords to Remember

  • Funeral Poem/Song: An elegy often serves as a poetic farewell to someone who has died.
  • Lament: An elegy is a form of lament, expressing sorrow for loss.
  • Reflection: An elegy provides a space for serious reflection, often about life, death, and the nature of existence.

So, whether it's a modern poem mourning the death of a loved one or an ancient Roman verse written in elegiac couplets, an elegy serves as a poignant expression of loss and reflection. Now that we've covered the basic definition of elegy, you're ready to explore its unique traits, dive into examples, and understand why it's an important literary form.

How to Identify an Elegy

Now that we've got a solid grasp on the definition of elegy, let's focus on how to identify one when you come across it. After all, not every sad poem you read is an elegy. There are some specific traits that set elegies apart.

Subject Matter

At its core, an elegy is about loss — typically, the loss of a person. But that's not the only kind of loss an elegy can explore. It could also be about the loss of an era, a place, or even an ideal. If the poem you're reading delves into the realm of loss and grief, you might be reading an elegy.


The tone of an elegy is usually solemn and mournful. But, it's not just about expressing sorrow. The tone might evolve as the poem progresses, moving from grief to acceptance, or even offering a sense of hope or consolation towards the end.


Elegies don't have a fixed structure like a sonnet or a haiku. So, this can make them a bit tricky to identify. However, classical elegies were often written in elegiac couplets, while modern elegies may adopt a more freeform approach.


The language of an elegy is typically rich and expressive, painting a vivid picture of the loss and the emotions it evokes. Look for language that conveys grief, sorrow, longing, or remembrance — these are all hallmarks of elegiac poetry.

So, the next time you're reading a poem that explores themes of loss in a solemn tone, with expressive language and perhaps a journey from grief to acceptance, you'll know that you're likely reading an elegy. It's all about spotting those unique traits that we've just discussed. Ready to explore some examples of elegies? Let's turn the page and dive right in.

Traits of Elegies

Now that we've covered how to identify an elegy, let's look closer into the unique characteristics that make an elegy what it is. By understanding these traits, you'll be able to appreciate the depth and richness of elegies.

Expression of Grief

The first and foremost trait of an elegy is its expression of grief. An elegy is a way for the poet to mourn a loss and express their sorrow. This sense of grief is a fundamental aspect of the elegy and is what sets it apart from other types of poetry.

Reflection and Remembrance

Another common trait of an elegy is reflection and remembrance. The poet doesn't merely express their grief; they also remember the person or thing that has been lost, often in vivid and touching detail. This remembrance can be bittersweet, but it's an integral part of the healing process that an elegy encapsulates.

Consolation and Comfort

In the final part of an elegy, you'll often find words of consolation and comfort. After expressing grief and remembering the lost, the poet often finds some level of acceptance or consolation. This might be a comforting thought, a hopeful note for the future, or a sense of peace and acceptance. This move towards consolation is what gives the elegy its emotional arc.


Finally, a key trait of an elegy is its use of imagery. An elegy doesn't just tell you about the loss; it shows you, using vivid and evocative imagery to convey the depth of the poet's feelings. This imagery is often drawn from nature, but it can also be deeply personal, reflecting the poet's unique perspective on their loss.

Now that we've explored the key traits of an elegy, we're ready to take a look at some examples. These will help you see how these traits come together to create a moving and deeply personal expression of grief and loss.

Examples of Elegies

Let's explore the definition of elegy with some well-known examples. Each one highlights the traits we discussed, providing a deeper understanding of this poetic form.

"In Memory of W. B. Yeats" by W.H. Auden

This powerful elegy is a tribute to the esteemed poet W.B. Yeats. Auden masterfully captures the traits of an elegy, expressing grief, reflecting on Yeats' influence, and eventually finding solace in the power of poetry itself.

"O Captain! My Captain!" by Walt Whitman

Whitman wrote this famous elegy as a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln. It perfectly illustrates the definition of elegy with its deep sorrow, vivid remembrance of Lincoln's leadership, and its eventual acceptance of his loss.

"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

One of the most famous elegies in the English language, Gray's poem is a poignant exploration of mortality and the universal experience of loss. It's a prime example of the use of imagery in elegies, painting a vivid picture of a quiet country churchyard.

Understanding these examples can help deepen your appreciation of elegies. They capture the essence of the human experience of loss, providing solace and understanding in the face of grief.

But why does this matter? Why should we care about the definition of elegy and its examples? Let's explore this further in the next section.

Why Elegies Matter

Now that we've mulled over the definition of elegy and examined some examples, you might ask, "Why are elegies important? Why should I care?" Here's the thing—elegies aren't just about mourning. They're also about healing, understanding, and making sense of our experiences.

Elegies and the Human Experience

Elegies speak to the heart of the human experience. Loss is a universal aspect of life—everyone experiences it in one form or another. By expressing grief and mourning, elegies validate our feelings and help us navigate our own losses.

Elegies and Healing

Healing is a significant aspect of the elegy. By expressing sorrow and gradually moving towards acceptance, elegies can provide a sort of roadmap for the grieving process. They reassure us that it's normal to feel sorrow and that, in time, it's possible to find peace.

Elegies as Cultural Artifacts

Elegies are also valuable as cultural artifacts. They provide insights into how different societies and time periods have dealt with loss and mourning. This makes them a fascinating focus for both historical and literary study.

So there you have it. Elegies aren't just sad poems—they're an important part of our cultural and emotional landscape. Understanding the definition of elegy not only enriches our literary knowledge but can also provide comfort and insight during challenging times.

If you're interested in diving deeper into the world of elegy and poetic exploration, check out the workshop 'Writing From Memory - Part 2' by Charlie Brogan. This workshop will help you develop your writing skills and learn how to create powerful and moving poems by drawing from your own memories and experiences.