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
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.
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.
#9 When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
1 When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring, Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west, And thought of him I love. 2 O powerful western fallen star! O shades of night—O moody, tearful night! 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. 3 In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings, Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green, With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love, With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard, With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green, A sprig with its flower I break. 4 In the swamp in secluded recesses, A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song. Solitary the thrush, The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements, Sings by himself a song. Song of the bleeding throat, Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know, If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.) Read Full Poem Here
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.
|Full Title:||Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats|
|Poet:||Percy Bysshe Shelley|
I I weep for Adonais—he is dead! Oh, weep for Adonais! though our tears Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head! And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers, And teach them thine own sorrow, say: "With me Died Adonais; till the Future dares Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be An echo and a light unto eternity!" II Where wert thou, mighty Mother, when he lay, When thy Son lay, pierc'd by the shaft which flies In darkness? where was lorn Urania When Adonais died? With veiled eyes, 'Mid listening Echoes, in her Paradise She sate, while one, with soft enamour'd breath, Rekindled all the fading melodies, With which, like flowers that mock the corse beneath, He had adorn'd and hid the coming bulk of Death. III Oh, weep for Adonais—he is dead! Wake, melancholy Mother, wake and weep! Yet wherefore? Quench within their burning bed Thy fiery tears, and let thy loud heart keep Like his, a mute and uncomplaining sleep; For he is gone, where all things wise and fair Descend—oh, dream not that the amorous Deep Will yet restore him to the vital air; Death feeds on his mute voice, and laughs at our despair. IV Most musical of mourners, weep again! Lament anew, Urania! He died, Who was the Sire of an immortal strain, Blind, old and lonely, when his country's pride, The priest, the slave and the liberticide, Trampled and mock'd with many a loathed rite Of lust and blood; he went, unterrified, Into the gulf of death; but his clear Sprite Yet reigns o'er earth; the third among the sons of light. Read Full Poem Here
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.
#7 Coplas por la muerte de su padre
|English Title:||Couplets on the Death of his Father|
The Introit Let from its dream the soul awaken, And reason mark with open eyes The scene unfolding,— How lightly life away is taken, How cometh Death in stealthy guise,— At last beholding; What swiftness hath the flight of pleasure That, once attained, seems nothing more Than respite cold; How fain is memory to measure Each latter day inferior To those of old. Beholding how each instant flies So swift, that, as we count, 'tis gone Beyond recover, Let us resolve to be more wise Than stake our future lot upon What soon is over. Let none be self-deluding, none,— Imagining some longer stay For his own treasure Than what today he sees undone; For everything must pass away In equal measure. 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 That forfeiteth; Thither, the rivers in their splendor; Thither, the streams of modest worth,— The rills beside them; Till there all equal they surrender; And so with those who toil on earth, And those who guide them. Read Full Poem Here
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”.
Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere, I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude, And with forc'd fingers rude Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year. Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear Compels me to disturb your season due; For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime, Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer. Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme. He must not float upon his wat'ry bier Unwept, and welter to the parching wind, Without the meed of some melodious tear. Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring; Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string. Hence with denial vain and coy excuse! So may some gentle muse With lucky words favour my destin'd urn, And as he passes turn And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud! For we were nurs'd upon the self-same hill, Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill; Together both, ere the high lawns appear'd Under the opening eyelids of the morn, We drove afield, and both together heard What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn, Batt'ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night, Oft till the star that rose at ev'ning bright Toward heav'n's descent had slop'd his westering wheel. Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute, Temper'd to th'oaten flute; Rough Satyrs danc'd, and Fauns with clov'n heel, From the glad sound would not be absent long; And old Damætas lov'd to hear our song. Read Full Poem Here
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.
#5 Funeral Blues
|Alternate Title:||Stop all the clocks|
|Poet:||W. H. Auden|
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. Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'. Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can ever come to any good.
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.
#4 In Memoriam A.H.H.
|Poet:||Alfred Lord Tennyson|
Strong Son of God, immortal Love, Whom we, that have not seen thy face, By faith, and faith alone, embrace, Believing where we cannot prove; Thine are these orbs of light and shade; Thou madest Life in man and brute; Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot Is on the skull which thou hast made. Thou wilt not leave us in the dust: Thou madest man, he knows not why, He thinks he was not made to die; And thou hast made him: thou art just. Thou seemest human and divine, The highest, holiest manhood, thou. Our wills are ours, we know not how; Our wills are ours, to make them thine. Our little systems have their day; They have their day and cease to be: They are but broken lights of thee, And thou, O Lord, art more than they. We have but faith: we cannot know; For knowledge is of things we see And yet we trust it comes from thee, A beam in darkness: let it grow. Read Full Poem Here
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.
#3 O Captain! My Captain!
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.
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.
#2 Le Lac
|English Title:||The Lake|
|Poet:||Alphonse de Lamartine|
Towards new and different shores forever driven onward, Through endless darkness always borne away, Upon the sea of time can we not lie at anchor For but a single day? Oh lake, the year has scarce run once more round its track, And by these waves she had to see again, Look! I have come alone to sit upon this rock You saw her sit on then. Beneath those towering cliffs, your waters murmur still, And on their ragged flanks, your waves still beat, The wind still flings those drops of spray, that last year fell On her beloved feet. Do you recall that evening, when we sailed in silence? Upon your waters a great stillness held; The only sounds were those of oars that struck in cadence Your harmonious swells. Read Full Poem Here
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.
#1 Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
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. Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight, And all the air a solemn stillness holds, Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight, And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds; Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r The moping owl does to the moon complain Of such, as wand'ring near her secret bow'r, Molest her ancient solitary reign. Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade, Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap, Each in his narrow cell for ever laid, The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep. The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn, The swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built shed, The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn, No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed. For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn, Or busy housewife ply her evening care: No children run to lisp their sire's return, Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share. Read Full Poem Here
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”.