The Elegy

I assumed an elegy was a lament for the dead; a sermon or poem to recognize the unique loss and the tragedy of permanent absence. I was wrong! (Well, and also right.) Early definitions of elegy described a certain form. Rhyming couplets in a certain rhythmic pattern. Elegies from the classical era might be about death but could also be erotic or tell a tale of myth.

Only when the English started writing elegiac poetry did it become closely associated with mourning.

In the 17th century some English poets still wrote elegies in the broadest sense. It looks like it was after the English Civil Wars and the Restoration that the English elegy became almost exclusively about commemorating death or tragedy.

Just as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was a pivotal point in the development of the Gothic, so was Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

Coincidentally, Gray and Walpole were close friends, touring Europe together for a couple of years. More about their relationship in a future post.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

excerpt from Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray.

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