What is an Elegy? Transcript (English & Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)
By David Biespiel, Oregon State University Poet-in-Residence
People get the words eulogy and elegy mixed up.
A eulogy is a speech that praises someone (or something), typically after they no longer exist. Funerals, as you’ve probably experienced, are the standard occasion for giving a eulogy, in which one person reflects on and celebrates the deceased’s life.
An elegy is a poem, and it has a particular kind of emotion driving it. That emotion is lament, meaning to feel and express sorrow, and to mourn for something — and, yes, elegies are very often about someone who has died, but it might also be something that has died, say, a feeling, or a relationship.
Or, I should say, elegies are an expression on the occasion of loss generally. They are the expression of the hurt, the wound. They are the howl of grief. They are a study of what is weeped for. They are…the blues. The emotion of lament and what to make of that lament is the subject of the elegy.
I’ll say it again: Where a eulogy at a funeral might reflect on the achievements, private and public, of someone who has just died, an elegy is more interested in the poet’s feelings of loss, and, most important, in finding metaphors for the awareness, perception, tangibility, or even the strange pleasures of the poet’s feelings of grief and mourning -- like what you get when the bluesman Buddy Guy sings, “All That Makes Me Happy is the Blues.”
So, the elegy is a poem interested, above all, in making a metaphor from loss.
The model of the contemporary elegy is four hundred years old. It comes from the British poet John Milton’s 17th century poem, “Lycidas.” It’s an amazing poem that mourns the death of Milton’s friend but does something that was so new at the time, its consequences are still being felt by poets all over the world on every continent.
Milton didn’t just share his grief about his friend or tally his achievements, he explored that grief, turning from a feeling into a metaphor, and he tried to understand what the grief means.
ELEGY EXAMPLE #1:
from John Milton's "Lycidas"
In other words, think of contemporary elegy like this: there’s a disturbance (a loss, say, or a death), then the poet responds by asking themselves, how do I feel about that? Not just what is the feeling I’m having, but, more important, what is that loss…like? Then the poem explores what the feeling is like, and compares it to something, and explores the comparison itself – the exploration of the comparison is the heart of the elegy. And then, finally, the poem resolves the metaphor. Not the disturbance, mind you. The person remains dead. But the feeling of loss, turned into a metaphor, is freshly alive.
Take Stanley Plumly’s heartbreaking elegy, “The Marriage in the Trees.” When I finish this video, I’ll read it to you. It’s about the breakup of a relationship, as the title indicates, of a marriage. But in the poem, Plumly laments that loss by lamenting what happened to the trees around the house that the married people lived in. That is, he compares the experience of a failing relationship with the inability to heal the trees.
Now, when I read it, try to track the “breakup” feelings that are expressed in the poem, meaning: the words that are about trees and also about lamenting the death of the love between the two people.
That’s the elegy’s power: not just to eulogize a death, but to create a new way of exploring loss.
ELEGY EXAMPLE #2:
from Stanley Plumly's “The Marriage in the Trees”
When the wind was right everything else
was wrong, like the oak we thought built
better than the house split like a ship
on a rock. We let it stand the winter,
spectral, shagged, every sky its snow,
then cut it down, dismantled it in
pieces like disease. Then limbs from
the yellow poplar broke at will—
fell from the heights like bones
of the Puritans; even to gather them
in bundles seemed puritanical.
And the willow, by its nature, wept
long tears of its overbranching,
so pale they were autumnal. These
we turned too easily to switches,
mocking the bickering in the spruce's
nesting eaves, which crows, then jays
bothered all they could. The list,
the list. The sycamore made maps
of disappearance; the copper beech,
parental in its girth, was clipped
hard, by a car, with a wound that wouldn't
heal. Doctoring, then witchery, then
love—nothing we tried would work.
More apple trees that grew nowhere
but down. More maples spilling sugar.
More hawthorns blazing out, telling truth.
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