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in Greek and Roman poetry, a poem written in elegiac verse (i.e., couplets consisting of a hexameter line followed by a pentameter line). The form dates back to 7th cent. B.C. in Greece and poets such as Archilochus, Mimnermus, and Tytraeus. Later taken up and developed in Roman poetry, it was widely used by Catullus, Ovid, and other Latin poets. In English poetry, since the 16th cent., the term elegy designates a reflective poem of lamentation or regret, with no set metrical form, generally of melancholy tone, often on death. The elegy can mourn one person, such as Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" on the death of Abraham Lincoln, or it can mourn humanity in general, as in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." In the pastoral elegy, modeled on the Greek poets Theocritus and Bion, the subject and friends are depicted as nymphs and shepherds inhabiting a pastoral world in classical times. Famous pastoral elegies are Milton's "Lycidas," on Edward King; Shelley's "Adonais," on John Keats; and Matthew Arnold's "Thyrsis," on Arthur Hugh Clough.



a literary and musical genre. In poetry, an elegy is a poem of medium length, meditative or emotional (usually sorrowful) in content. It is most often written in the first person but is not governed by any specific rules of composition.

The elegy originated in Greece in the seventh century B.C.; the first examples, by Callinus, Mimnermus, Tyrteus, and Theognis, were mainly moral and political in content. In Hellenistic and Roman poetry, notably in the works of Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid, the love theme came to predominate. The form of the classical elegy was the elegiac distich. In imitation of classical models, elegies were written in the Latin poetry of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the elegy was introduced into the new vernacular poetry by P. de Ronsard in France, E. Spenser in England, M. Opitz in Germany, and J. Kochanow-ski in Poland. However, it was long considered a minor genre. The elegy flourished during the preromantic and romantic periods, with the melancholy elegies of T. Gray, E. Jung, C. Millevoye, A. Chenier, and A. de Lamartine; the love elegies of E. Parny; and the classical elegy which was reestablished in Goethe’s Roman Elegies. Later the elegy gradually lost its distinction as a genre, and the term has been passing out of use, remaining only as a tribute to poetic tradition, for example, R. M. Rilke’s Duino Elegies and B. Brecht’s Buckow Elegies.

In Russian poetry, the elegy appeared in the 18th century. Introduced by V. K. Trediakovskii and A. P. Sumarokov, the genre reached its highest level of development in the works of V. A. Zhukovskii, K. N. Batiushkov, A. S. Pushkin (“The Light of Day Has Dimmed,” “The Clouds Are Thinning,” “The Faded Merriment of Our Youthful Madness”), E. A. Baratynskii, and N. M. lazykov. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, poets used the word “elegy” only as the title of cycles, for example, A. A. Fet, and of individual poems, for example, A. Akhmatova and D. Samoilov.

In music, the elegy is the embodiment of the elegiac poem, for example, Borodin’s art song “For the Shores of Thy Fair Native Land” and Massenet’s Elegy for Voice, Piano, and Cello. Purely instrumental works have also been based on such compositions, for example, Tchaikovsky’s elegy from the Serenade for String Orchestra and Rachmaninoff s and Liszt’s elegies for piano.


Frizman, L. G. Zhizn’ liricheskogo zhanra: Russkaia elegiia ot Sumarokova do Nekrasova. Moscow, 1973.

M. L. GASPAROV (the elegy in literature)


1. a mournful or plaintive poem or song, esp a lament for the dead
2. poetry or a poem written in elegiac couplets or stanzas
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