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Not just words to fill out funerals or film scripts, the elegy possesses a great power to move the most stoic of listeners. Get better acquainted, you lot.
You might remember Walt Whitman’s poem O Captain! My Captain! from the 1989 film Dead Poets Society starring the late great Robin Williams.
That poem is an elegy.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Ostensibly about a recently deceased ship’s captain who has steered his craft safely home after a successful mission, Whitman’s memorable elegy is actually a valediction for Abraham Lincoln who was assassinated in 1865.
The parallels are easy to discern: the ship represents America, a nation recently divided by Civil War; the captain is Lincoln. The “prize” is a reunified nation won at the cost of its leader. It’s a deceptively simple poem made all the more powerful by the regular rhyme scheme (AABBCDED) and the repetition of words “fallen cold and dead”.
It’s an elegy, but it’s not merely a lament for the dead.
The poem is also a celebration of Lincoln’s life and legacy and a thankfulness that he was able to effect true and lasting change.
This is the thing with elegies – they usually cover those three things: loss and grieving for the deceased, a reflective eulogy to that person, and the consolation that comes with acceptance.
But put away your sadness because we’re looking at the glorious power of words to move us, to evoke in us deep emotions that can take us beyond the individual and into the general realms of the shared human condition. Yes, the elegy is sad but it’s also uplifting, so be of good cheer.
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Back in classical times, there was a particular structure to an elegy – it consisted of alternating lines of hexameter and pentameter, which is basically one line consisting of six feet followed by a line consisting of five feet. It’s a rhythm thing. Just to confuse the matter, ancient Greek and Roman poets also wrote love poems in elegiac metre, but we’re not going there today.
The elegy soon came to be more about the content than the metre, so an elegy can be written in whatever metre the poet prefers. It can also be short or long.
The ancient Roman poet Catullus (84-54 BC) penned a short elegy on the death of his brother. Although it focuses on his sadness, there’s a certain comfort in the performance of traditional graveside rites. The poignancy of his final “hail and farewell” resonates across the centuries.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a long elegy (55 verses) on the death of fellow poet John Keats, Adonais (1821). There’s rather a lot going on in this poem, but the essential elements are there.
It opens with Shelley weeping for Keats; he references Keats’s poems with warmth and affection and eventually consoles the bereaved by declaring that Keats is now immortal, forever removed from suffering, pain and criticism. The man is gone but his works remain.
Now consider Dylan Thomas’s unfinished Elegy for his father, read by Richard Burton:
The elegy begins morosely – his father is blind, his spirit broken – but the poet tells us that in death he will “grow young among the long flocks”. He recalls the old man’s pain, but also his pride in his achievements, small as they were, and Thomas quietly comes to accept his father’s passing, ending the elegy with “Until I die he will not leave my side”.
Some may find the poem unbearably mournful but it seems to me that Thomas has gently reconciled with the reality of death. His muted acceptance is a lesson to us all. Loved ones die, yet what they meant to us remains. It’s a fine piece of poetry.
One of the most famous elegies is Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard, the 1751 poem by Thomas Gray, beginning with the familiar words: “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day”. You probably read it at school. Gray’s long poem mourns the death of pretty much everyone, and indeed he intended it as a contemplation of mortality.
Yet it’s also much more. Gray’s elegy is a wealth of gorgeous language evoking the beauty of the countryside while also celebrating human achievement, from the contribution of the lowliest(!) housewife to the grandness of the poet Milton. Gray has taken the concept of the elegy from being about one person to being about humanity.
So there’s fair bit of leeway in the elegy. The strict structures required by other poetic forms such as haiku or the sonnet are not relevant here. What’s important is that generally speaking, the poet covers the three stages: grief, praise and consolation.
Check out some other elegies too and revel in the wondrous words used in them. For starters, try Rainer Maria Rilke’s powerful Duino Elegies, WH Auden’s exquisite In Memory of WB Yeats and Wilfred Owen’s beautifully tragic Elegy in April and September.
These are superb examples of poetic craftsmanship, and immersing yourself in them is sure to bring you to a deeper level of consciousness.