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


As lovers of literature, we've all stumbled upon various forms of poetry. Today, we're going to explore an often misunderstood form — the elegy. We'll dive into the nitty-gritty of what an elegy is, its different types, how you can identify one, and even some examples to tie it all together. Ready? Let's get started on this poetic journey!

What is an elegy?

Let's start by tackling the definition of elegy. In its simplest form, an elegy is a poem that expresses serious reflection, often a lament for the dead. This form of poetry gives a voice to our deepest thoughts and feelings about life, death, and everything in between. Now, let's break this down a little more.

Origins and Meaning

Originally, in Greek and Roman poetry, an elegy was a poem written in elegiac couplets, like those by Catullus and Propertius. Over time, the definition of elegy has evolved to include any poem of serious reflection, whether it's about love lost or a tribute to someone who has passed away.


Here are some key characteristics that are generally found in an elegy:

  • Emotion: Elegies often express deep emotions — whether it's sadness, loss, or contemplation.
  • Reflection: An elegy isn't just about expressing sadness; it's about reflecting on the meaning of life, death, or loss.
  • Respect: Elegies usually pay respect or homage to someone who has passed away.

Types of Elegy

There are a few different types of elegy that you might come across. Here are a few:

  1. Personal Elegy: This type of elegy is a personal lament for someone the poet knew and cared for.
  2. Public Elegy: A public elegy mourns the loss of a public figure or a public tragedy.
  3. Pastoral Elegy: This form of elegy uses pastoral elements (like shepherds or nature) as a metaphor for loss and mourning.

Now that we've gotten a good grasp on the definition of elegy and its key characteristics, let's move on to how you can identify an elegy when you come across one.

Types of Elegy

Delving deeper into the definition of elegy, we come across different types of elegies which showcase the versatility of this poetic form. While the overarching theme remains a lament for the dead or a reflection on loss, the context and manner of expression can vary greatly. Now, let's explore these variations.

Personal Elegy

Personal elegy, as the name suggests, is deeply personal. It's a poetic expression of grief for someone close to the poet. So, if you're reading a poem mourning the loss of a friend, family member, or loved one, it's likely a personal elegy. A classic example is Alfred Lord Tennyson's "In Memoriam," an elegy written for his close friend Arthur Hallam.

Public Elegy

On the other hand, a public elegy is a lament for a public figure or a collective loss. The focus here is not on personal grief but on shared sorrow and commemoration. If a poem is mourning a national hero, a leader, or a tragic event that affected a community or a nation, you're probably looking at a public elegy. W.H. Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" is a well-known public elegy.

Pastoral Elegy

Lastly, we have the pastoral elegy, a unique form that uses elements of nature as metaphors for loss and mourning. If a poem mourns the loss of an idealized, often rural, past, it's likely a pastoral elegy. This form often includes shepherds or other rustic figures to symbolize innocence and peacefulness. John Milton's "Lycidas" is a famous example of a pastoral elegy.

Understanding these types deepens our grasp of the definition of elegy, and helps us appreciate the range and depth of this poetic form. Next up, we'll explore some practical tips for identifying an elegy when you see one.

How to Identify an Elegy

Armed with the definition of an elegy and knowledge of its types, you're well on your way to becoming an elegy expert. But how do you identify an elegy when you encounter one? Let's find out.

Theme of Loss

The first clue is the theme. Elegies revolve around the theme of loss - it could be the loss of a person, an era, or even an ideal. If the poem you're reading dwells on the feelings of grief, sorrow, or nostalgia, chances are you're reading an elegy.

Expression of Mourning

Elegies are not just about loss, but also the expression of mourning that follows. They serve as a medium for poets to process their grief and pay tribute to what they've lost. If the poem wrestles with feelings of mourning and pays homage to the departed, it's another sign you're reading an elegy.

Reflective Tone

Finally, the tone of an elegy is usually reflective. The poet uses the poem as a platform to ponder on the nature of life, death, and loss. So if the poem you're reading has a contemplative, introspective tone, it very well could be an elegy.

Identifying an elegy isn't always straightforward, but these tips should give you a good starting point. Now, let's look at some examples of elegies to see these characteristics in action.

Examples of Elegies

Now that we've covered the basics and explored how to identify an elegy, let's dive into some real-life examples. These will help you understand the concept better and give you a taste of the beauty and depth that elegies can offer.

"O Captain! My Captain!" by Walt Whitman

Whitman's famous poem is an elegy to Abraham Lincoln. He uses the metaphor of a ship's captain to depict Lincoln's leadership during the Civil War. The tone is mournful and reflective, aligning perfectly with our definition of elegy.

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

Auden's elegy mourns the loss of fellow poet W. B. Yeats. The poem is a tribute to Yeats's influence and explores the enduring power of his poetry. It's a perfect example of how an elegy can commemorate an individual's life and legacy.

"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

This poem is one of the most famous examples of an elegy. Gray uses the setting of a country churchyard to meditate on death and remember those who have passed away. Its somber, reflective tone and focus on loss are characteristic of an elegy.

By studying these examples, you can get a better grasp on what an elegy looks like in practice. Each elegy is unique, but they all share the common elements of mourning, reflection, and tribute. Now, if you're feeling inspired to try your hand at writing an elegy, let's move on to some helpful tips.

Tips for Writing an Elegy

So, you're ready to write your own elegy? That's great! Remember, the goal here isn't to create a masterpiece on your first try. It's all about expressing your feelings and honoring a loss. Here are some tips to guide you through the process.

Choose the right subject

First off, decide who or what your elegy will commemorate. It could be a person, an event, or even an idea. The key is to choose a subject that you feel a deep connection with. This emotional bond will shine through in your writing and make your elegy more powerful.

Decide on a tone

While elegies typically have a mournful tone, they can also express other emotions like love, admiration, or even anger. Decide on the tone that best suits your subject and your own feelings. Remember, this is your chance to express yourself, so don't hold back!

Use vivid imagery

Good elegies often use vivid imagery to convey their emotions. Think about the images, smells, sounds, and other sensory details that remind you of your subject. Incorporating these into your elegy can make it more evocative and memorable.

Revise and refine

Finally, don't forget to revise your elegy. Writing is a process, and it's okay if your first draft isn't perfect. Take the time to refine your words, smooth out any rough edges, and ensure your elegy truly reflects your feelings.

Writing an elegy can be a cathartic experience. It allows you to express your sorrow, celebrate a life, and find a sense of closure. Remember, the most important thing is to write from the heart. Happy writing!

If you're interested in exploring the world of elegy and want to enhance your writing skills, check out the workshop 'Writing From Memory - Part 2' by Charlie Brogan. This workshop delves into the art of writing from memory and personal experiences, which will help you create impactful elegies and other powerful pieces of literature.