Etymologically the term elegy derived from the Greek word “elegus” which means a song of bereavement sung along with a flute. In literature, an elegy is a poem of serious reflection, which typically mourns the loss of someone who has died or something that has been deteriorated
Elegy can also be explained as:
- a mournful or plaintive poem; a funeral song; a lament for the dead, or a poem of lamentation.
- a serious poem, typically on the subject of mourning the deceased
- a sad poem, usually written to praise and express sorrow for someone who is dead.
O Captain! My Captain! By Walt Whitman
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.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
(“O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman, 1891)
“O Captain! My Captain!” is an elegy written by Walt Whitman in 1865 to commemorate the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Walt Whitman was inspired by the events of the American Civil War. The poem captured the mood of a nation in mourning and has remained one of Whitman’s best-loved and most-quoted poems.
An elegy is characterized as follow:
- It is a type of lyric and focuses on expressing emotions or thoughts.
- It uses formal language and structure.
- It may mourn the passing of life and beauty or someone dear to the speaker.
- It may explore questions about nature of life and death or immorality of soul.
- It may express the speaker’s anger about death.
The purpose of this kind of poem is to express feelings rather than tell a story.