In classical literature an elegy was any poem composed of elegiac distichs also called elegiacs, and therefore the subjects were various: death, war, love and similar themes. The elegy was additionally utilized for the epitaphs and memorial verses, and there was a grieving strain in them. However, it’s only since the 16th century that an elegy has come to mean a poem of mourning for a person or a lament over tragic event.
- It focuses on the emotion and thought.
- The major theme is death, war and love.
- The grief and sorrow over the demise of beloved one is expressed.
- It may also express poet’s outrage over the death.
- Formal language and structure is used in poetry.
The major elegies belong to a sub-species known as pastoral elegy, the orign of which are to be found in the pastoral laments of the three Sicilian poets: Theocritus (3rd c.B.C.), Moschus (2nd c. B.C.) and Bion (2nd c.B.C.). Their most important works were: Theocritus’s Lament for Daphnis, which is very well prototype for Milton’s Lycidas; Moschus’s Lament for Bion which influenced Milton’s Lycidas, Shelly’s Adonias and Matthew Arnold’s Thyrsis; and Bion’s Lament for Adonis, on which Shelly partly modelled his Adonais.
Spencer was one of the earliest English poets to use for elegy what are known as the pastoral conventions; namely in Astrophil (1586), an elegy for Sir Philip Sidney. Though it is a minor work but has a great significance in the of the genre. Spencer also wrote Daphnaïda (1591), on the death of Sir Aurthur Gorges’s wife.
After Spencer, Milton established the form of the pastoral elegy in England with Lycidas (1637), a poem inspired by the death of King Henry.
In Memoriam (1850), Tennyson’s epitaph for Hallam, contrasts from the others in that it comes up short on the pastoral conventions. But most of the other features are retained and the element of personal reflection is much more marked.
Thomas Gray’s Elegy is also a class of its own because it laments the passing of a way of life.
The characteristics of the Pastoral Elegy are as follows:
- The scene is pastoral. The poet and the person he mourns are represented as shepherds
- The poet begins with an invocation of Muses and refers to divers mythological characters during the poem.
- The poet asks the parents of the dead shepherd that where they were when he died.
- There is a procession of mourners.
- The poet reflects on the divine justice and contemporary evils.
- There is a passage of flowers describing the decoration of the bier.
- At last there is a restoration of hope and satisfaction, with the thought communicated that death is the start of life.