What is an Elegy?

An examination of the history, form and use of the Elegy; a form of reflective poetry, often used to mourn the dead.

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An Elegy is a form of poetry used to mourn and reflect.


The term ‘Elegy’ comes from the Greek ‘Elegos’ meaning ‘lament.’ Originally, it referred to any verse written in Elegiac couplets, a form of strict verse in which one line is delivered in hexameter and responded to in pentameter. It is believed to be one of the oldest forms of epodic poetry, where a first voice is responded to by others. Even in Ancient Greece, it was not known who originally invented the form.

Around the 7th Century BC, Mimnermus of Colophon began to use the form for erotic poetry, which lead to poets exploring the rhythm and form of Elegiac verse for other topics. In particular, with its inherent rhetoric quality, many Latin and Greek poets used the form for witty observations and war stories.

In the 1st Century, Ovid wrote a number of Elegies about his exile, which he likened to a death, and much of the third and fourth books of Tibullus are dedicated to Elegies, though they may not have been written by Tibullus himself but rather a collective of poets serving under his patron, Mesalla.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Elegy fell out fashion, but instead of becoming lost, it found a place as an occasional poetic form. Rather than dedicating oneself to the craft of Elegies, poets instead visited the form to mark special occasions. This trend continued until the post-Renaissance, when the form found popularity again. This came at a time when there was renewed interest in Roman culture, and poets such as Milton explored the form extensively.

In modern English literature, the term ‘Elegy’ has been altered considerably. While it exists in a set form, the term is also often used to describe any poem of mourning, though this has only been the case since the 16th Century. Notably, John Donne continued to write formally correct Elegies into the 17th Century on a broad range of topics.

This change in the use of Elegies can be found in Old English Exeter Book (circa 1000AD). The book features a number of formal Elegies on a broad range of topics. What unites them is their sorrowful tone, and that they are, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge would later define the Elegy, “Serious meditative poems.”


As mentioned above, there has been much change in the form of the Elegy. What started out as a fixed, strict form is now more akin to a genre.

The original form, used by the Greeks, was defined by two criteria. Firstly, the couplets would consist of one line in hexameter (or six beats) followed by one line in pentameter (or five beats).

Secondly, the rhythm must adhere to the below:

– (-) – (-) – (-) – (-) – (-) – –
– (-) – (-) – – . . – . . –

In this notation, dashes are long syllables, while dots are short syllables with the notation in brackets standing for either one long syllable or two short ones.


Any poem written in sorrowful terms can be considered Elegy, from poems about death to being unlucky in love, though an elegy is not just a poem that is sad. An Elegy is specifically about loss, what was and no longer is.

Elegies are never about the broader world but the experience of the poet. Many intentionally use the first-person pronoun, ‘I.’ This contrasts with gloomier epic poems, and instils a more identifiable sense of sadness. Much in the same way that some people have a hard time caring about climate change because of the scale of the problem, the Elegy works by focusing on an issue that directly affects a person, rather than a larger issue that affects a group of people.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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