The elegy is a poem which mourns the death of someone, often a close friend or family member, or sometimes a public figure who has recently died. Elegies therefore tend to take a melancholy tone, and are often set in churchyards or other places suitable for gloomy introspection.

The death of a friend is frequently only the starting-point for the poem. Many elegies develop into reflections on:
• The narrator's own eventual death
• The world they live in
• Christian themes pertaining to death and heaven.
Much Graveyard poetry is in elegiac form.

Form and style

The term elegy comes originally from the Greek, where it referred specifically to the metre and other formal properties of a poem. However, the adjective elegiac is now usually used to refer to a sad poem which expresses regret for a bereavement.

The elegy does not take any particular form and can vary widely. However, some elegies use the elegiac stanza, a quatrain of iambic pentameters which rhyme abab. This form derives from Gray's Elegy (see below).


  • John Milton's elegy Lycidas (1637) marks the beginning of this modern construction of the elegy as a lament for a loved one. Lycidas is a pastoral elegy], in which the natural world joins the narrator in mourning the dead friend. This is called pathetic fallacy. Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem Adonais (1821) is also in this tradition
  • The most well-known example of the term is Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751). This is an unusual elegy, since Gray is mourning not one person, but all the people buried in the churchyard, the ‘mute inglorious Milton' and ‘village-Hampden' whose name and works will never be known
  • Another famous elegy is Alfred, Lord Tennyson's long poem In Memoriam A.H.H. (1850), in which the poet mourns his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died of a stroke aged twenty-two. In In Memoriam, Tennyson reflects not only on the short life of his friend but on the fleeting and tragic nature of the world.
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