elegy: A poem of mortal loss and consolation. The word elegy derives from the Greek élegos, "funeral lament.” It was among the first forms of the ancients, though in Greek literature it refers to a specific verse form as well as the emotions conveyed by it. Any poem using the particular meter of the elegiac couplet or elegiac distich was termed an elegy. It was composed of a heroic or dactylic hexameter followed by a pentameter. Here are two lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Elegiac Verse” (1882):
So the Hexameter, rising and singing, with cadence sonorous,
Falls; and in refluent rhythms back the Pentameter flows.
There were elegies, chanted aloud and traditionally accompanied by the flute, on love (amatory complaints) and war (exhortatory martial epigrams) as well as death. But, as Peter Sacks puts it, “Behind this array of topics there may have lain an earlier, more exclusive association of the flute song’s elegiacs with the expression of grief.”
Since the sixteenth century, the elegy has designated a poem mourning the death of an individual (as in W. B. Yeats’s “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” 1918) or a solemn meditation on the passing of human life (as in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” 1751). The elegy does what Freud calls “the work of mourning.” It ritualizes grief into language and thereby makes it more bearable. The great elegy touches the unfathomable and originates in the unspeakable, in unacceptable loss. It allows us to experience mortality. It turns loss into remembrance and delivers an inheritance. It opens a space for retrospection and drives a wordless anguish toward the consolations of verbal articulation and ceremony.
The sense of overwhelming loss that powers the poetry of lamentation exists in all languages and poetries. It has roots in religious feeling and ritual. The process, the action of mourning, of doing something to pass on the dead, thus clearing a space between the dead and the living, has residual force in the ceremonial structure of the elegy. Classical antiquity had several literary vehicles for the formal expression of deep sorrow. The dirge was a song of lament deriving from the Greek epicedium, a mourning song sung over the body of the dead. The threnody was a Greek “wailing song” sung in memory of the dead. Originally a choral ode, it evolved into the monody (Greek: “alone song”), an ode sung by a single actor in a Greek tragedy or a poem mourning someone’s death. John Milton described “Lycidas” (1638), a poem inspired by the death of Edward King, as a monody; Matthew Arnold also termed “Thyrsis” (1866), a lament for Arthur Clough, a monody.
These two poems, along with Edmund Spenser’s “Astrophel” (1586), a lament for Sidney, and Percy Shelley’s “Adonais” (1821), a lament for John Keats, belong to a subspecies of the tradition called the pastoral elegy. The laments of three Sicilian poets writing in Greek—Theocritus (third century BCE), Moschus (second century BCE), and Bion (second century BCE)—inspired the pastoral conventions of the later English elegy. These highly elaborated conventions (the invocation to the muse, the representation of nature in the lament, the procession of mourners, and so forth) become the formal channel of mourning. “The elegy follows the ancient rites in the basic passage from grief or darkness to consolation and renewal,” Sacks writes. The pastoral conventions are dropped in a poem such as Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1849), his heartbroken book on the death of Arthur Hallam, but the ritualistic feeling remains. There is a sense of lineage and inheritance in Algernon Charles Swinburne’s hieratic Baudelairean elegy for Charles Baudelaire, “Ave atque Vale” (“a mourning musical of many mourners,” 1868), and Thomas Hardy’s Swinburnean elegy for Swinburne, “A Singer Asleep” (1910). The dignified formality opens out into elegies commemorating a public figure, such as Walt Whitman’s poem for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865) and W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” (1939). It empowers the elegy for a friend who is also a public figure, such as Federico García Lorca’s “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” (1935).
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was thinking of the elegy as a de-particularized form, a poem with a certain meditative mood or style, when he described it as “the form of poetry natural to the reflective mind.” The definition of the elegy as a serious reflection on a serious subject applies to the so-called Anglo-Saxon elegies, some of the earliest poems in the English tradition, such as “The Wanderer” (tenth century) and “The Seafarer” (tenth century), which are poems of great personal deprivation shading off into meditations on mutability and petitions for divine guidance and consolation. This sense of the elegy carries forward through Thomas Nashe’s “A Litany in Time of Plague” (1600), Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1742–1746), and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (1923).
The sense of a highly self-conscious dramatic performance, of a necessary and sometimes reluctant reentry into language, continues to power the elegy in our century, but the traditional consolations and comforts of the elegy have often been called into question. For example, Hardy radicalizes the genre by speaking from a position of uncompromising isolation in emotionally unsheltered elegies for his dead wife, Poems of 1912–13. Think, too, of Wilfred Owen’s ironically titled “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1917) and his poems “Greater Love” (1917) and “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (“What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?,” 1917), of Isaac Rosenberg’s “Dead Man’s Dump” (1917) and Edward Thomas’s “Tears” (“It seems I have no tears left,” 1915), of Edith Sitwell’s “Dirge for the New Sunrise” (1945) and Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” (1945).
The American elegist in particular seems to suffer from what Emily Dickinson calls a “polar privacy,” a dark sense of isolation, of displacement from the traditional settings of grief and the consolations of community. This is accompanied by a more naked experience of grief. A saving and even ceremonial formality still comes to the aid of Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” (1928), James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover (1976–1982), Amy Clampitt’s “A Procession at Candlemas” (1981), Charles Wright’s The Southern Cross (1981), and Richard Howard’s deeply aggrieved elegies for dead friends. How many dead paternities stalk like ghosts through the precincts of American poetry! One thinks of Dickinson (“Burgler! Banker — Father!”) and Sylvia Plath (“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”), of Robert Lowell (Life Studies, 1959), Philip Levine (1933, 1974), and Sharon Olds (The Father, 1992), of mournful poems to the father by James Agee, John Berryman, Stanley Kunitz, Stanley Plumly, William Matthews, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, Alberto Rios. I have been moved over the years by William Meredith’s memorial poems to his beloved friends in poetry, by Robert Hayden’s “Elegies for Paradise Valley” (1978), by L. E. Sissman’s self-elegies (Hello, Darkness, 1978), by Mark Doty’s elegies for a lover dying of AIDS (My Alexandria, 1993), by Larry Levis’s posthumous collection, Elegy (1977). These poems continue to ask, as Auden writes in his elegy “At the Grave of Henry James” (1941), “What living occasion can / Be just to the absent?”
Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.