Rules of Writing an Elegy Poem

Craft powerful elegy poems. Learn key rules, structure, and techniques from famous examples. Start writing your elegy today!

By:   Daniel Oliver, Published on: 2024-02-02, Last Updated: 23-07-24

Reviewed by: Hazel Max

Table of Contents

Elegy poems have been part of literature for thousands of years that come from ancient Greece. These special poems help people express sadness and honor those who have died. 

Many famous poets, like Thomas Gray and Walt Whitman, have written powerful elegies. 

According to The Journal of Poetry Studies, approximately 15% of poetry lessons in high school and college are about elegy poems. This shows how important these poems are for talking about loss and sadness.

While elegies are often about death,. Over time, the rules for writing elegies have changed, but some key elements remain. 

Understanding these elegy rules can help writers create meaningful poems that touch readers' hearts. 

Elegy poems are known for their emotional impact, both on the writer and the reader.

As many poets can attest:

"When you start writing an elegy..."

"...and the feels hit you like a truck."

Learn how to write a perfect elegy poem

So, let's explore together the important guidelines for creating an elegy poem.

What are elegy poems? 

There are various types of poems. From them, elegy is a special type of poem that expresses sadness and loss. 

They are usually written to remember and honor someone who has died, but they can also be about other kinds of losses. 

Elegies often share memories of the person or thing that's gone and talk about the feelings of pain and regret. 

These poems help people process their emotions and pay tribute to what they've lost. 

These poems can be serious or even celebratory, focusing on the good memories and the impact the person or thing had. 

They're a way for poets to share their feelings and help others who might be going through similar experiences of loss.

Structure of elegy poem

The structures and rhythms help poets create elegies that sound beautiful and feel meaningful. 

They give the poem a sense of order, which can be comforting when writing about something as difficult as loss. 

By following these patterns, poets can create elegies that touch people's hearts and help them remember those they've lost. 

Parts of elegy

An elegy typically has three main parts: 

  • Lament (opening) - the poet expresses their sadness and grief. 

They might describe how they feel or share memories of the person who died.

This part helps readers understand the depth of the loss.

  • Praise or encomium (middle) - the poet celebrates the life or qualities of the person they're writing about. 

They might talk about the person's achievements, kindness, or special talents.

This section helps keep the memory of the person alive and reminds everyone of their good qualities.

  • Consolation (concluding) - the poet tries to find some comfort or hope. 

They might talk about how the person's memory will live on, or how their life made the world better. 

This part can help the poet and readers start to feel a little better about the loss.

Rhythms in elegy

When it comes to rhythm in elegies, poets have a few choices. One common format is the elegiac couplet, which is two lines of poetry that rhyme and have a specific pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. 

Another option is iambic pentameter, which is a rhythm where each line has five pairs of syllables, with the stress on the second syllable of each pair. 

It's often used in English poetry. 

Some poets prefer to write in quatrains, which are stanzas of four lines

They can have various rhyme schemes, like ABAB or AABB.

How to write an elegy poem? 

When you follow the rules of writing elegy poetry, you can create a poem that is meaningful, has emotions, and sounds natural. 

According to the Modern Poets' Society Annual Survey, almost 30% of modern poets have written at least one elegy. This shows that elegy poems are still important in today’s poetry.

Here I’m discussing the main steps that you can follow to write an elegy poem:

1. Read well and select a subject

First, read some elegy poems to get ideas. Famous elegy poets like Walt Whitman and W.H. Auden wrote great elegies. 

As you read, think about who you want to write about. 

It could be a loved one, a pet, or even a famous person you admire who has passed away.

2. Brainstorm emotions and memories

Next, make a list of feelings and memories about the person you're writing about. 

  • What made them special? 
  • What do you miss most? 

Write down words that describe them, like "kind," "brave," or "funny."

Remember funny stories or important moments you shared. These ideas will help you write a poem.

3. Choose a structure

Pick how you want your poem to look. There are a few options:

  • Elegiac couplet - These are two lines that rhyme.
  • Iambic pentameter - Have five pairs of syllables, with the stress on the second syllable of each pair.
  • Quatrains - Groups of four lines, sometimes with rhymes.

You can also write in free verse, which doesn't have to follow any rules. 

Choose what feels right for your poem.

4. Start writing your poem

When you start writing your poem, begin by expressing your sadness and loss.

Describe how you felt when you heard the news or a special memory you have (Lament)

Then, share what made the person amazing. Talk about their good qualities and fun times you had together (Praise or encomium)

Finally, try to find some comfort. Maybe think about how their life changed yours or how their memory will stay with you (Consolation)

As you begin writing, don't be surprised if you find yourself deeply moved. Many poets experience this:

"Writing an elegy be like:"

"One word in, already need a tissue."

5. Revise and refine

After you write your first draft, read it over. 

  • Does it sound the way you want? 
  • Do the words flow well? 

Make changes to make it better. You can:

  • Add more details to make your memories clearer
  • Change words to make them more interesting or emotional
  • Fix any spelling or grammar mistakes
  • Ask someone else to read it and give you feedback

However, your elegy is a personal tribute. It doesn't have to be perfect. 

The most important thing is that it expresses your feelings and honors the person you're writing about.

5 Examples of elegy poems 

Here are some elegy examples from some famous poets:

1. "To an athlete dying young" 

Poet name: A.E. Housman 

Written in: 1896

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory does not stay

And early though the laurel grows

It withers quicker than the rose.

Summary

This poem is about a young athlete who died. The town once carried him on their shoulders when he won a race. 

Now, they carry him again, but to his grave. The poet says it might be good that he died young because fame doesn't last long. 

Even though honour comes fast, it fades quicker than a rose. The athlete won't have to see his fame fade away because he died at his peak.

2. "Dirge without music" 

Poet name: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Written in: 1928

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.

So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned

With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.

Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.

A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,

A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

Summary 

The poet is sad about people dying. She knows it happens all the time, but she doesn't like it. Good and smart people die and are buried.

She's not okay with this. The poet says lovers and thinkers are put in the ground and become part of the dirt. 

Some of what they knew stays behind, like in books or sayings, but the best parts of them are gone forever. The poet feels this loss deeply.

3. "When I have fears that I may cease to be" 

Poet name: John Keats 

Written in: 1818 

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,

Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

Summary

Keats talks about his fears of dying young. He worries he won't have time to write all his ideas or read many books. 

He's scared he might not get to fully explore love and romance. The poet also fears he won't be able to enjoy the beauty of nature and art. 

In the end, he feels alone in the world, thinking about how both love and fame might not matter much in the face of death. 

The poem shows Keats' deep thoughts about life, creativity, and mortality.

4. “O captain! My captain!”

Poet name: Walt Whitman

Written in: 1865

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.

Summary 

This poem is about a ship's captain who died just as the ship reached port after a hard journey. The poet is sad because even though they won, the captain can't celebrate. 

He talks about hearing bells and people cheering, but he's upset because the captain is dead on the deck. The captain represents Abraham Lincoln, who was killed right after the Civil War ended. 

Whitman wrote this to show his sadness about losing Lincoln when America had just won the war.

5. "Because I could not stop for death" 

Poet name: Emily Dickinson 

Written in: 1863

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –

The Dews drew quivering and Chill –

For only Gossamer, my Gown –

My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses' Heads

Were toward Eternity –

Summary 

The poet talks about Death like a polite visitor. Death comes in a carriage to pick her up. They go on a slow ride past scenes of life: a school, fields, and the setting sun. 

The poet realizes she's not dressed warmly, feeling cold. They stop at a grave, which looks like a small hill. 

Even though this happened long ago, the poet feels like it was just yesterday. She's describing her journey from life to death, and how it felt peaceful and natural.

Conclusion

Writing an elegy poem is a special way to remember someone or something we've lost. It helps us share our feelings and honor those who are gone. Your poem doesn't have to be perfect. The most important thing is to be honest and write from your heart. Elegies can help us heal and keep memories alive.

Why not try writing an elegy today? Think of someone or something you miss, and put your feelings into words. 

You could share your poem with family or friends, or keep it just for yourself. Writing can be a great way to work through your emotions and create a lasting tribute.

FAQs

1. Does an elegy have to rhyme?

No, an elegy doesn't have to rhyme. You can write it in any style you like, with or without rhymes.

2. Why might someone write an elegy?

People write elegies to remember someone who died, to express their sadness, or to honor something that's gone.

3. What is a sad poem called?

A sad poem is called an elegy. It's a poem that talks about loss and sadness.

4. How to start an elegy poem?

Start by thinking about the person or thing you've lost. Write down your feelings and memories. Begin with a strong first line.

5. How long is an elegy?

An elegy can be any length. It can be short like a few lines, or long like many pages.

6. What is an elegy poem?

A poem that expresses loss for someone or something that has passed is called an elegy poem.

7. What kind of mood does an elegy create?

An elegy usually creates a sad, thoughtful mood. It can also feel respectful and sometimes hopeful.

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