Like the Ode, the Elegy has its origins in Classical literature, where it was characterised by its elegiac metre (alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and pentameter). But don’t worry, this challenge does not demand such a fixed and complex metre. In English literature, an Elegy is ‘a form of poetry in which the poet or speaker expresses grief, sadness, or loss.’ (Thanks to poets.org for the definition.) It can be a lament on the death of a loved one, public figure, or even an ideal. It is a form of lyric poetry, meaning it is suitable for adaptation to music and song.
Example – Gray’s Elegy
My favourite example of an Elegy in the English language it Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard of 1750. Pay close attention to the opening lines:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
The first line sets the mournful tone with the tolling of the curfew bell, which is continued into the second line with the lowing of the cattle. The plowman’s ‘plodding’ adds to the heaviness of feeling which the poet is expressing, before he closes out the stanza with the showstopper: ‘And leaves the world to darkness and to me.’
When I first studied this poem, I found it a little depressing. Fair to say, it’s not exactly cheerful. But it is a poem which has haunted me. It’s so much more than a solitary poet lamenting his solitude. Where the first three stanzas set the mournful scene, in the fourth, we are introduced to ‘the rude forefathers of the hamlet’ who sleep ‘beneath the turf.’ From this point forward, the poem becomes a lament for the unsung heroes of the poor.
Gray speaks of death as the great leveller in the 9th Stanza:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
The title of Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory was taken from a novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, who took the line from Gray. The poem in fact spawned not one, but two novels, Stanza 19 opening with the line:
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
From which Hardy created ‘Far From the Madding Crowd.’ It is easy to see we are dealing with a masterpiece, when we consider that from this poem two new masterpieces were born.
Grey continues his lament for the unsung achievements and unfulfilled destinies of the poor:
Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply
It is an elegy which rails against the traditional elegiac subject: he chooses not to lament the loss of a famous public figure, but rather the lot of the forgotten poor.
In the final stanzas, the poet equates himself with the poor, and wonders if anyone will say:
“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,”
This sentiment is so simple, and yet so moving: he wonders if he will be missed by any stranger who might have grown accustomed to seeing him climb his favourite hill. He closes the poem with his own epitaph, something remarkable in itself. I don’t think there could be an ode to top this one, if you need a point of reference as to how the form can be transformed into a literary masterpiece.
Write an elegy: a lamenting, lyric poem on any subject. The metre and the rhyming scheme (if any) are your choice. But it should be about something which moves you deeply. In this, the Elegy is similar to the Ode, except that it is more concerned with grief and loss than simply with praising its subject. You can read my own attempt at writing an Elegy, which is possibly the most depressing poem I have ever written!
How to enter:
- Post your elegy to your own blog, linking back to this post and tagging ‘EIF Poetry Challenge.’ If you prefer to enter by email you can send entries to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also share your poem on Twitter tagging @Experimentsinfc.
- The deadline for entries is midnight CET on Monday, 24th August 2020.
- There are no prizes as such, except for the glory! And the chance to judge the next fortnight’s competition (entirely optional).
I look forward to reading your elegies!
Enjoy the challenge,