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Elegiac poetry traces back to the ancient Greek tradition of “elegeia.” This term referred to a poetic verse that is phrased in elegiac couplets, addressing topics such as loss, death, love, and war. When Romans conquered Greek lands, they frequently appropriated Greek artistic traditions, and elegiac poetry was no exception. Roman elegies, written in Latin, addressed similar topics as Greek elegies but gave special emphasis to erotic or mythological themes.

Elegy poems were revived during the Renaissance and eventually made their way into the canon of English literature. The English poets versed their elegies with greater emphasis upon death and loss of a loved one, while somewhat downplaying the eroticism of their Roman forebears.

The history of English language elegies is rich and varied. Some of the enduring elegies include:

1. John Donne, “The Flea” (published posthumously in 1633). A romantic elegy using a blood-sucking flea as a metaphor. In general, Donne was bolder in his sexual descriptions than many of his English contemporaries, although it is relevant to consider that most of his most erotic work was published after his death, and often cloaked in literary devices.

2. John Milton, “Lycidas” (1637). This is a good example of a pastoral elegy, meaning a poem that uses descriptions of nature to articulate feelings of loss and remembrance. As was standard for the London-born Milton, “Lycidas” is brimming with Christian themes.

3. Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751). A somber meditation on death inspired by the 1742 passing of the poet Richard West.

4. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Adona├»s: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats” (1821). An elegy written in the Spenserian style of iambic pentameter with an ABABBCBCC rhyme scheme. The poem memorializes John Keats, which follows in the tradition of authors using elegy to honor their literary compatriots.

5. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam” (1850). A Victorian-era elegy for Tennyson’s dear friend and would-be brother-in-law Arthur Henry Hallam.

6. Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865). An elegy inspired by Lincoln as well as the loss felt throughout America in the aftermath of the Civil War.

7. W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” (1940). Written by the British Auden to honor the departed Irish poet Yeats. The poem is divided into a lament, eulogistic praise, and solace for mourners.

The most significant and well-known example of elegiac poetry in eighteenth-century English literature is Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751), which was inspired by a country churchyard Gray saw close to his mother's home in the English village of Stoke Poges. Gray's reflection on mortality and memory among the ordinary people of England's rural, agricultural life was inspired by the pastoral scene. Gray closes his investigation with a personal reflection. Gray introduces himself as an observer, an elderly peasant, and explains how he wants to be remembered by writing his own epitaph.

Elegy The poem Gray wrote titled "Written in a Country Churchyard," which was first published in 1751, is regarded as the finest work of elegiac poetry in eighteenth-century English literature. The nature of death and memory are explored in Gray's elegy, which also seems to express the poet's own perspective on how he wants to be remembered. Gray created two different versions, the first as early as 1742 with the passing of his friend Richard West and the second somewhere around 1748 following the passing of an aunt. Major changes were made to the poem before it was published in 1751, most notably the end of the poem, which now focuses on Gray's personal opinions on how people will remember him as a poet. 


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