Meditative lyric poem. The classical elegy was any poem written in elegiac metre (alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and pentameter). Today the term may refer to this metre rather than to content, but in English literature since the 16th century it has meant a lament in any metre. A distinct variety with a formal pattern is the pastoral elegy, such as John Milton's “Lycidas” (1638). Poets of the 18th-century Graveyard School reflected on death and immortality in elegies, most famously Thomas Gray's “An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard” (1751).
Learn more about elegy with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The first examples of elegiac poetry in writing come from classical Greece. The form dates back nearly as early as epic, with such authors as Archilocus and Simonides of Ceos from early in the history of Greece. The first great elegiac poet of the Hellenistic period was Philitas of Cos: Augustan poets identified his name with great elegiac writing. One of the most influential elegiac writers was Philitas' rival Callimachus, who had an enormous impact on Roman poets, both elegists and non-elegists alike. He promulgated the idea that elegy, shorter and more compact than epic, could be even more beautiful and worthy of appreciation. Propertius linked him to his rival with the following well-known couplet:
The 1st century AD rhetorician Quintilian ranked Philitas second only to Callimachus among the elegiac poets.
The foremost elegiac writers of the Roman era were Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid. Catullus, a generation earlier than the other three, influenced his younger counterparts greatly. They all, particularly Propertius, drew influence from Callimachus, and they also clearly read each other and responded to each other's works. Notably, Catullus and Ovid wrote in non-elegiac meters as well, but Propertius and Tibullus did not.
The "elegy" was originally a classical form with few English examples. However, in 1751, Thomas Gray wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard That poem inspired numerous imitators, and soon both the revived Pindaric ode and "elegy" were commonplace. Gray used the term "elegy" for a poem of solitude and mourning, and not just for funereal (eulogy) verse. He also freed the elegy from the Classical elegiac meter.
Afterward, Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued that the elegiac is the form "most natural to the reflective mind," and it may be upon any subject, so long as it reflects on the poet himself. Coleridge was quite aware of the fact that his definition conflated the elegiac with the lyric, but he was emphasizing the recollected and reflective nature of the lyric he favored and referring to the sort of elegy that had been popularized by Gray. Similarly, William Wordsworth had said that poetry should come from "emotions recollected in tranquility" (Preface to Lyrical Ballads, emphasis added). After the Romantics, "elegiac" slowly returned to its narrower meaning of verse composed in memory of the dead.
In other examples of poetry such as Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott an elegiac tone can be used, where the author is praising someone in a sombre tone.