How to Write an Elegy
Elegy comes from the Greek word for lament. Initially it referred to any poem written in elegiac couplets: one line of dactylic hexameter followed by a line of dactylic pentameter. An ancient elegy could be written on any topic whatsoever, yet the falling rhythm lent itself to melancholy themes. Catullus' 101 mourns the falling of his brother.
The term grew away from a particular verse form and came to mean a poem expressing loss. Thomas Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, written in 1751, is composed in iambic pentameter. Walt Whitman's O Captain! My Captain!, written about the death of Abraham Lincoln, uses in a more loose iambic form. Regardless the meter and rhyme, the elegy became the poem of mourning.
It should not be confused with eulogy, which is a speech delivered at a funeral. An ode is a poem of praise. The subject does not have to be dead. An epitaph is a short piece of text that could be placed on a tombstone.
Three Basic Themes
The elegy traditionally deals with three themes in the following order:
Lament – Express what is missing from the world now that this person gone. What do you wish you had done before they passed on? Why is this a powerful loss for you and the world as a whole?
Grief – How does this death make you feel? What did you do when you learned about it? How did others react? What physical metaphors describe your emotions?
Praise – Celebrate what this person did for the world? In what ways will they be remembered? What did they build? Who did they teach? How will you never be the same?
Of course, this is your elegy. Build it how you think it should be built, but free-write on these themes to see what ideas come out.
You can write an elegy three basic ways: about someone you knew personally, about a person you knew distantly or about a broad mournful theme. Identify which of these is your subject. Then free-write about it.
If you're writing about someone close to you, I'm sorry for your loss. Honor them with a unique and detailed description of your relationship. Recall specific times you spent together, conversations, gifts and occasions. How has your life improved because you were touched by this person? What will never be the same? How will you, your friends and your family carry on their memory?
If you're writing about an important figure you did not know personally, document how you came to know the person. What did they build, say, write, invent or otherwise create that affected you? Where were you when you first were struck by this person? How would your life be different without them? Collect quotes and other details that convey your point.
If you're writing about the idea of loss or a sensation of lament, bleed all of that out onto paper. Get your feelings out and be as specific as possible. Go off on tangents. Speak your mind in symbolic details. It is never enough to tell someone how you feel. Make them feel it. Put them in the picture with you. Your poem is a tool for communication, not simply personal purging.
While respecting the dead, keep in mind your audience. Are you writing a poem for public speech? Will this be read or otherwise displayed as part of a memorial? If so, think about the broad spectrum of people who will attend and keep your tone somber. Perhaps you had a fun and jovial relationship with the deceased and feel comfortable joking about them. Their grandmother may not appreciate that. In this case, you are much more writing for the living audience. Consider the three themes of lament, grief and praise. Make your listeners feel the loss yet leave them with a sense of gladness to have known the deceased.
If this poem will not be delivered in memoriam, perhaps you are writing it more for yourself and the subject. This is a means to identify your feelings and remember the good times. Your memories will start to fade unless you find a way to solidify them. Write down, in journal or verse, the things about your friend that are special, memorable and irreplaceable. Feel free to write as if the person was with you. Make fun of them if you need to. Make fun of yourself. Use a tone appropriate for the two of you without regard for what others think. This is about a real person, not a body in formal dress arranged in a casket. Be honest and bold. The deceased deserves it.
The style you choose will have a lot to do with your audience and the tone you decide to take. You and your subject will make this call. A more serious form could be appropriate, but think about a sing-song rhyme scheme if you're elegizing Dr. Seuss.
- You can go classic and use the dactylic hexameter/pentameter form. Will your subject appreciate the ancient mode?
- Iambic pentameter is always effective in English. If you're not in the mood to be bold, this could be a solid choice. Perhaps a sonnet.
- Free-verse is good for recreating the patterns of human speech. If you can remember, read or listen to the words of your subject, see if you can use line-breaks to make a poem with the right cadence.
- Did your subject have a favorite poem or type of poetry? Can you bring their favorite music into your verse? Select a form that would represent them the best.
Overall, think deeply and write thoroughly about your subject. Find specific details that sum up their meaning to you and this planet. Create a piece of written art that communicates this to a person than never knew them. Make your subject proud.
- If you are comfortable, write about a favorite moment with a friend or family member no longer alive.
- Write about a deceased public figure who had a strong effect on you. When was the moment you knew they were influential?
- Lament the fading away of an idea, a fad, a movement or an invention in the form of a poem.
- In classic elegiac couplets, write about an imaginary person no longer around. Then write it in the form of a limerick or other light-hearted verse.