Originally the term elegy was used to describe any verse written in elegiac couplets, a poetic form used by ancient Greek poets. At that time, elegies covered a wide range of subject matter and were not necessarily regarding death. With time, the term was used for a poem which told mournful experiences; and according to the modern definition, an elegy is a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead. Today most people use the term strictly for a poem which praises and expresses sorrow for someone who has died. The poems selected for this list apply the modern definition and they at the least talk about death. This has led to the exclusion of some well known poems including The Wanderer and The Seafarer. A common genre of elegy is pastoral elegy in which the poet speaks in the guise of a shepherd in a peaceful landscape and expresses his grief on the death of another shepherd. The most famous examples of pastoral elegies are Milton’s Lycidas and P B Shelley’s Adonaïs. Here are the 10 most famous elegy poems.
#10 On My First Sonne
Author: Ben Jonson
Ben Jonson was an English writer who was a towering literary figure of his age. Best known for his satirical plays, he was also a prominent poet and this elegy is among his most famous poems. Jonson wrote it after the death in 1603 of his eldest son, Benjamin, aged seven. In it, the speaker bids farewell to his son and seeks some meaning in the loss. He then tells his son to rest in peace and say to anyone who asks him that he is Ben Jonson’s best piece of poetry. He concludes by writing that he vows never to like what he loves. On My First Sonne is a moving reflection of a father’s pain on losing his child. Jonson wrote another well known poem about his daughter Mary’s death, which was titled On My First Daughter.
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.
#9 When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
Poet: Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman is considered one of the greatest poets of America and When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d is one of his most famous works. It was written after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Despite the poem being an elegy to Lincoln, Whitman doesn’t use the name of the President or describe the circumstances of his death. Instead he uses symbolism. The poem moves from grief to the distress that war causes and ends with acceptance of death. Though not one of Whitman’s favorite, the poem is considered a masterpiece and ranked by critics as one of the greatest elegies in the English language.
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
Full Title: Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion, etc.
Author: Percy Bysshe Shelley
John Keats was a friend of P. B. Shelley and they often corresponded. This poem was written by Shelley seven weeks after the funeral of Keats, who died at the age of 25 in 1821. In it, Shelley uses the untimely death of the Greek god of fertility, Adonis, as an extended metaphor for the death of Keats. The poem initially describes the mourning due to the death of Adonais before the speaker urges the mourners to stop weeping as Adonais is now one with nature. He has gone where “envy and calumny and hate and pain” cannot reach him. Adonais is considered one of the finest works of Shelley and it is one of his best known poems.
The breath whose might I have invok’d in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
#7 Coplas por la muerte de su padre
English Title: Couplets on the Death of his Father
Poet: Jorge Manrique
Jorge Manrique belonged to one of the most powerful noble families in medieval Spain. He wrote this funeral elegy in memory of his father Rodrigo Manrique, who died of cancer on November 11, 1476. In it, Manrique presents his father as a model knight endowed with all the Christian virtues. Consisting of 40 stanzas, the poem can be divided into three distinct sections: the first 14 verses are a reflection on life and death; verses XV to XXIV talk about human waywardness on the road leading to death; and the last 26 verses are dedicated to his father and talk about the possibility of continuing to live in the memories of others through noble deeds accomplished during the lifetime. Coplas por la muerte de su padre is regarded as one of the masterpieces of Spanish literature and its verses have been said to be “worthy to be printed in letters of gold”.
Our lives are fated as the rivers
That gather downward to the sea
We know as Death;
And thither every flood delivers
The pride and pomp of seigniory
Poet: John Milton
This poem is dedicated to the memory of Edward King, who had been a fellow student and a friend of John Milton at Cambridge University. An aspiring poet, King had planned to become a member of the clergy but his life was cut short when he drowned in a shipwreck near the Welsh coast. Lycidas is a pastoral elegy in iambic pentameter with irregular rhyme. The speaker of the poem is an unnamed shepherd while Lycidas, a fellow shepherd, represents Edward King. The two have been described as tending their flocks and competing in song-making. The speaker describes Lycidas as selfless, laments his death and accuses God of unjustly taking his life away at a young age. The title of the poem comes from classical sources, chiefly from the works of Theocritus and Virgil. Lycidas was exceedingly popular and was hailed as Milton’s best poem at the time. It remains one of the most famous elegies written in the English language.
And every flower that sad embroidery wears;
Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.
For so, to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.
#5 Funeral Blues
Alternate Title: Stop all the clocks
Poet: W. H. Auden
In Funeral Blues, the speaker laments the death of someone close to him. He begins by calling for silence and for all to mourn. He then describes how the person who died was everything to him and concludes in despair by indicating that there is nothing that matters to him now. Funeral Blues is perhaps Auden’s best known poem and it has featured in popular culture many times, most famously in the 1994 British romantic comedy film Four Weddings and a Funeral. A sculpture build to commemorate the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, in which 39 people died, features this poem to symbolize the sorrow felt for the victims.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
#4 In Memoriam A.H.H.
Poet: Alfred Lord Tennyson
A.H.H., or Arthur Henry Hallam, was a close friend of Tennyson. He was also engaged to Alfred’s sister, Emilia Tennyson. Hallam died of a stroke at the young age of 22 in 1833. His death had a deep impact on Tennyson, who wrote many lyrics, over the next 17 years, related to the death of his dear friend. These were ultimately published as a single lengthy poem titled In Memoriam A.H.H. in 1850. The poem consists of 131 sections, a prologue, and an epilogue. It contains the elements of a traditional elegy like mourning for the dead and praise of his virtues, while also including philosophical reflection on faith and science. In Memoriam was an enormous critical and popular success. It was a favorite of Queen Victoria who was “soothed & pleased” by it after the death of her husband Prince Albert. It is the most famous work of Alfred Lord Tennyson and is considered one of the great poems of the 19th century.
I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
#3 O Captain! My Captain!
Poet: Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman composed O Captain! My Captain! after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. In the poem, Whitman refers to Lincoln as the captain of the ship, representing America. The poem also has several references to the American Civil War; and political and social issues of the time. It begins by describing the mood of the nation after the victory of the Union in the Civil War. The speaker then asks his Captain to rise and join the celebration not acknowledging that Lincoln is dead. He finally accepts that the Captain is dead and mourns his loss. O Captain! My Captain! is still widely read in the United States. It is the most famous poem of Whitman and perhaps the most famous elegy written by an American.
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
#2 Le Lac
English Title: The Lake
Poet: Alphonse de Lamartine
Lamartine is considered one of the greatest French poets of the 19th century and Le Lac is his best known poem. The poem is an elegy for Julie Charles, the poet’s muse and the wife of the famous physician Jacques Charles. Lamartine had met Julie in 1816 on the shores of Lake Bourget in Savoie, France. The two were supposed to meet again in August the following year but she became ill with tuberculosis and subsequently died. Lamartine went to the lake alone visiting the places they that explored together the previous year. He then recorded the experience in this poem of sixteen quatrains. Le Lac met with great acclaim on being published and inspired a generation of French Romantic poets. It is the most famous French elegy and one of the most widely read French poems.
O Lake! Scarce has a single year coursed past.
To waves that she was meant to see again,
I come alone to sit upon this stone
You saw her sit on then.
#1 Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Poet: Thomas Gray
The life of Thomas Gray was surrounded by death. In 1749, his aunt died and a close friend was almost killed. These incidents greatly disturbed Gray and made him think of his own mortality. Eventually, based on the lines he had composed following the death in 1742 of a poet he knew called Richard West, Gray began to compose one of the most famous poems in the English language. The poem begins with the speaker wandering in a churchyard thinking about the dead people lying there. This leads him to contemplate about his own inevitable death. He then imagines someone passing by the same churchyard and concludes with that person reading the speaker’s epitaph. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard quickly became popular establishing Gray as one of the leading English poets of his era. It has remained famous since then and even today some claim it as “the best-known and best-loved poem in English”.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.