I. What is an Elegy?
An elegy (pronounced ELL-eh-jee) is a poem of mourning. Written in a somber style, it reflects seriously on death and on the person who has passed. Elegies are written for a specific person, usually someone the author knew well, although sometimes people write elegies for long-dead heroes. The emotional effect is usually greatest, however, when the elegy is written from a personal experience of loss.
II. Examples of Elegy
“Though Adam was a friend of mine,
I did not know him well
He was alone into his distance
He was deep into his well.”
(Jackson Browne, Song for Adam)
The singer/songwriter Jackson Browne wrote a song about his friend Adam, a young traveling companion who died in India shortly after meeting the singer. Browne’s song is especially touching because he has such deep emotions for someone he knew only briefly. Notice how the lyrics paint a picture of Adam’s personality and his emotional outlook, giving us a glimpse of the world through his eyes.
“I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham
If I thought I could see, I could see your face.”
(Emmylou Harris, Boulder to Birmingham)
Country singer Emmylou Harris wrote this elegy for Gram Parsons, who died at the age of only 26. Harris expresses her loss by saying she would walk from Boulder, CO, to Birmingham, AL (a distance of over a thousand miles).
III. The Importance of an Elegy
Losing someone to death is one of the most powerful human experiences – we all go through this at one time or another, so elegies are motivated by a broadly shared human emotion. When you lose a loved one, you can often process the emotions better by writing them down in an elegy.
Because the emotions surrounding death are so strong and so universal, elegies can resonate very deeply with an audience.
IV. Examples of an Elegy in Literature
“Now he is scattered among a hundred cities…
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.”
(W.H. Auden, In Memory of W.B. Yeats)
This is one of Auden’s most famous poems, written after the passing of his friend and fellow poet, William Butler Yeats. In the poem, Auden reflects on the way that Yeats’s work lives on after the poet’s death in the “guts” of those left behind.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won…
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.”
(Walt Whitman, O Captain! My Captain!)
During the Civil War, Walt Whitman volunteered as a nurse for wounded Union troops. He was deeply committed to the cause of the war, and a proud supporter of Abraham Lincoln. Many years after Lincoln’s death, Whitman wrote this elegy as a tribute to his fallen leader, expressing the sense of loss and perseverance felt in the North after the war’s final tragedy.
V. Examples of an Elegy in Pop Culture
“Reverse the crash,
Reverse the blast then reverse the car
Reverse the day and there you are, Bobalob
Lord forgive him, we all have sinned
But Bob’s a good dude, please let him in”
(Jay Z, Lucifer)
Jay Z’s “Lucifer,” one of the first songs to feature a hook written by Kanye West, is also an elegy to several of Jay-Z’s friends who have died. This line is about Bobalob, a friend from the Bronx who was shot in his car. Elsewhere in the song, Jay Z raps about the emotional experience he goes through every night, dreaming of Bob and his killer.
“How you suffered for your sanity
how you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how
perhaps they’ll listen now.”
(Don McClean, Vincent)
Don McClean’s famous acoustic song is an elegy to the artist Vincent Van Gogh. Of course, McClean never knew Van Gogh, who died 50 years before McClean’s birth. But the singer obviously feels that he has connected with the artist through his paintings, and this song is an effort to mourn a tortured genius who died under difficult circumstances.
VI. Related Terms
A eulogy is a speech of praise, typically delivered at a funeral. Although it sounds very close to “elegy,” the two concepts are different in that “eulogy” almost always refers to an actual speech at an actual funeral, whereas an elegy is just a work of art that can appear at any time. If someone wrote a poem about the dead and then read it at the person’s funeral, that would be both an elegy and a eulogy.
A “requiem” is a Catholic ceremony in which the souls of the dead are laid to rest. It is usually performed as part of a funeral, but sometimes a parish will hold a requiem for a large number of departed without a funeral. For example, after 9/11 many churches had requiems that were not funerals. Countless works of classical music have been written to accompany this ceremony, and so the term “requiem” has acquired a second meaning as a work of art mourning the dead. So you might say that an elegy is a kind of requiem, figuratively speaking.