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What is an Elegy? Famous Poem Example

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

ELEGY, a short poem of lamentation or regret, called forth by the decease of a beloved or revered person, or by a general sense of the pathos of mortality. The Greek word ?λεγε?α is of doubtful signification; it is usually interpreted as meaning a mournful or funeral song. But there seems to be no proof that this idea of regret for death entered into the original meaning of ?λεγε?α. The earliest Greek elegies which have come down to us are not funereal, although it is possible that the primitive ?λεγε?α may have been a set of words liturgically used, with music, at a burial. When the elegy appears in surviving Greek literature, we find it dedicated, not to death, but to war and love. Callinus of Ephesus, who flourished in the 7th century, is the earliest elegist of whom we possess fragments. A little later Tyrtaeus was composing his famous elegies in Sparta. Both of these writers were, so far as we know, exclusively warlike and patriotic. On the other hand, the passion of love inspires Mimnermus, whose elegies are the prototypes not only of the later Greek pieces, and of the Latin poems of the school of Tibullus and Propertius, but of a great deal of the formal erotic poetry of modern Europe. In the 6th century b.c., the elegies of Solon were admired; they are mainly lost. But we possess more of the work of Theognis of Megara than of any other archaic elegist, and in it we can observe the characteristics of Greek elegy best. Here the Dorian spirit of chivalry reaches its highest expression, and war is combined with manly love.

The elegy, in its calm movement, seems to have begun to lose currency when the ecstasy of emotion was more successfully interpreted by the various rhythmic and dithyrambic inventions of the Aeolic lyrists. The elegy, however, rose again to the highest level of merit in Alexandrian times. It was reintroduced by Philetas in the 3rd cent. b.c., and was carried to extreme perfection by Callimachus. Other later Greek elegists of high reputation were Asclepiades and Euphorion. But it is curious to notice that all the elegies of these poets were of an amatory nature, and that antiquity styled the funeral dirges of Theocritus, Bion and Moschus—which are to us the types of elegy—not elegies at all, but idylls. When the poets of Rome began their imitative study of Alexandrian models, it was natural that the elegies of writers such as Callimachus should tempt them to immediate imitation. Gallus, whose works are unhappily lost, is known to have produced a great sensation in Rome by publishing his translation of the poems of Euphorion; and he passed on to the composition of erotic elegies of his own, which were the earliest in the Latin language. If we possessed his once-famous Cytheris, we should be able to decide the question of how much Propertius, who is now the leading figure among Roman elegists, owed to the example of Gallus. His brilliantly emotional Cynthia, with its rich and unexampled employment of that alternation of hexameter and pentameter which had now come to be known as the elegiac measure, seems, however, to have settled the type of Latin elegy. Tibullus is always named in conjunction with Propertius, who was his contemporary, although in their style they were violently contrasted. The sweetness of Tibullus was the object of admiration and constant imitation by the Latin poets of the Renaissance, although Propertius has more austerely pleased a later taste. Finally, Ovid wrote elegies of great variety in subject, but all in the same form, and his dexterous easy metre closed the tradition of elegiac poetry among the ancients. What remains in the decline of Latin literature is all founded on a study of those masters of the Golden Age.

When the Renaissance found its way to England, the word “elegy” was introduced by readers of Ovid and Propertius. But from the beginning of the 16th century, it was used in English, as it has been ever since, to describe a funeral song or lament. One of the earliest poems in English which bears the title of elegy is The Complaint of Philomene, which George Gascoigne began in 1562, and printed in 1576. The Daphnaida of Spenser (1591) is an elegy in the strict modern sense, namely a poem of regret pronounced at the obsequies of a particular person. In 1579 Puttenham had defined an elegy as being a song “of long lamentation.” With the opening of the 17th century the composition of elegies became universal on every occasion of public or private grief. Dr Johnson’s definition, “Elegy, a short poem without points or turns,” is singularly inept and careless. By that time (1755) English literature had produced many great elegies, of which the Lycidas of Milton is by far the most illustrious. But even Cowley’s on Crashaw, Tickell’s on Addison, Pope’s on an Unfortunate Lady, those of Quarles, and Dryden, and Donne, should have warned Johnson of his mistake. Since the 18th century the most illustrious examples of elegy in English literature have been the Adonais of Shelley (on Keats), the Thyrsisof Matthew Arnold (on Clough), and the Ave atque Vale of Mr Swinburne (on Baudelaire). It remains for us to mention what is the most celebrated elegy in English, that written by Gray in a Country Churchyard. This, however, belongs to a class apart, as it is not addressed to the memory of any particular person. A writer of small merit, James Hammond (1716-1742), enjoyed a certain success with his Love Elegies in which he endeavoured to introduce the erotic elegy as it was written by Ovid and Tibullus. This experiment took no hold of English literature, but was welcomed in France in the amatory works of Parny (1753-1814), in those of Chênedollé (1769-1833), and of Millevoye (1782-1816). The melancholy and sentimental elegies of the last named are the typical examples of this class of poetry in French literature. Lamartine must be included among the elegists, and his famous “Le Lac” is as eminent an elegy in French as Gray’s “Country Churchyard” is in English. The elegy has flourished in Portugal, partly because it was cultivated with great success by Camoens, the most illustrious of the Portuguese poets. In Italian, Chiabrera and Filicaia are named among the leading national elegists. In German literature, the notion of elegy as a poem of lamentation does not exist. The famous Roman Elegies of Goethe imitate in form and theme those of Ovid; they are not even plaintive in character.

Elegiac Verse has commonly been adopted by German poets for their elegies, but by English poets never. Schiller defines this kind of verse, which consists of a distich of which the first line is a hexameter and the second a pentameter, in the following pretty illustration:—

“In the hexameter rises the fountain’s silvery column.

In the pentameter aye falling in melody back.”

The word “elegy,” in English, is one which is frequently used very incorrectly; it should be remembered that it must be mournful, meditative and short without being ejaculatory. Thus Tennyson’s In Memoriam is excluded by its length; it may at best be treated as a collection of elegies. Wordsworth’s Lucy, on the other hand, is a dirge; this is too brief a burst of emotion to be styled an elegy. Lycidas and Adonais remain the two unapproachable types of what a personal elegy ought to be in English.

Book: Shattered Sighs