Elegies and Bereavement Poems: How to Honor your Deceased Loved One with a Poem

What is an elegy?

An elegiac poem is one in which the poet aims to honor someone who is deceased.

The poet generally enhances the work by asking philosophical questions about fate, destiny, and equity.

An elegy does not rely heavily on a plot like other poems which focus on a person or character(s). In fact, it is typical for elegiac poems to lack a plot in favor of sharing memories.

Many elegiac poets tend to focus on the frailty of human existence and the sad truth that the deceased are honored in the moment and then widely forgotten.

However elegies are not limited to this somber and existential motif. Many are written as celebrations: the commemoration of the life lived and the joy of what may await the deceased in the afterlife.

Some poets such as Ovid and Catullus even used humor and irony in their elegies.

History of the elegy

The word elegy comes from the Greek word elegus, a word used to describe a song of bereavement accompanied by a flute.

The format of elegies that we are familiar with today was introduced in the 16th Century.

Structure of an elegy

Like the poet or narrator in an epic poem, the poet of an elegy generally begins by invoking a muse (a goddess of the arts).

The poet will then proceed to reference traditional mythology (in a way that will tie into the life and/or personality of the deceased).

Once the comparison is drawn, the poet will then raise questions about destiny and fate. This allows the poem to transcend the life of the honored party which unifies the human race in life and death.

This is added to help ease the pain of the friends and family of the deceased, so that all grieving parties have a sense that they are not enduring this pain alone.

It is customary for the poet to add other words of comfort for the family and add platitudes or descriptions about the afterlife (aligning with the religion or lack thereof of the deceased and his/her family).

Remember:

If you are writing an elegy, you are writing a poem to commemorate the deceased.

You’ll want to write a poem that you think he/she would enjoy and one that will bring comfort to the family.

Don’t overthink it.

Go with your gut.

Famous examples of elegies

Lycidas by John Milton

Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint and sad occasion dear
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his wat’ry bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear.

 Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well
That from beneath the seat of Jove doth spring;
Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
Hence with denial vain and coy excuse!
So may some gentle muse
With lucky words favour my destin’d urn,
And as he passes turn
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud!

      For we were nurs’d upon the self-same hill,
Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill;
Together both, ere the high lawns appear’d
Under the opening eyelids of the morn,
We drove afield, and both together heard
What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Batt’ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the star that rose at ev’ning bright
Toward heav’n’s descent had slop’d his westering wheel.
Meanwhile the rural ditties were not mute,
Temper’d to th’oaten flute;
Rough Satyrs danc’d, and Fauns with clov’n heel,
From the glad sound would not be absent long;
And old Damætas lov’d to hear our song.

      But O the heavy change now thou art gone,
Now thou art gone, and never must return!
Thee, Shepherd, thee the woods and desert caves,
With wild thyme and the gadding vine o’ergrown,
And all their echoes mourn.
The willows and the hazel copses green
Shall now no more be seen
Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays.
As killing as the canker to the rose,
Or taint-worm to the weanling herds that graze,
Or frost to flowers that their gay wardrobe wear
When first the white thorn blows:
Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd’s ear.

      Where were ye, Nymphs, when the remorseless deep
Clos’d o’er the head of your lov’d Lycidas?
For neither were ye playing on the steep
Where your old bards, the famous Druids, lie,
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard stream.
Ay me! I fondly dream
Had ye bin there’—for what could that have done?
What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The Muse herself, for her enchanting son,
Whom universal nature did lament,
When by the rout that made the hideous roar
His gory visage down the stream was sent,
Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore?

      Alas! what boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely, slighted shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done, as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neæra’s hair?
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights and live laborious days;
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with th’abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life. “But not the praise,”
Phoebus replied, and touch’d my trembling ears;
“Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil,
Nor in the glistering foil
Set off to th’world, nor in broad rumour lies,
But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes
And perfect witness of all-judging Jove;
As he pronounces lastly on each deed,
Of so much fame in Heav’n expect thy meed.”

      O fountain Arethuse, and thou honour’d flood,
Smooth-sliding Mincius, crown’d with vocal reeds,
That strain I heard was of a higher mood.
But now my oat proceeds,
And listens to the Herald of the Sea,
That came in Neptune’s plea.
He ask’d the waves, and ask’d the felon winds,
“What hard mishap hath doom’d this gentle swain?”
And question’d every gust of rugged wings
That blows from off each beaked promontory.
They knew not of his story;
And sage Hippotades their answer brings,
That not a blast was from his dungeon stray’d;
The air was calm, and on the level brine
Sleek Panope with all her sisters play’d.
It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in th’eclipse, and rigg’d with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.

      Next Camus, reverend sire, went footing slow,
His mantle hairy, and his bonnet sedge,
Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge
Like to that sanguine flower inscrib’d with woe.
“Ah! who hath reft,” quoth he, “my dearest pledge?”
Last came, and last did go,
The Pilot of the Galilean lake;
Two massy keys he bore of metals twain
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain).
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake:
“How well could I have spar’d for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies’ sake
Creep and intrude, and climb into the fold?
Of other care they little reck’ning make
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast
And shove away the worthy bidden guest.
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw,
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoll’n with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said,
But that two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more”.

      Return, Alpheus: the dread voice is past
That shrunk thy streams; return, Sicilian Muse,
And call the vales and bid them hither cast
Their bells and flow’rets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use
Of shades and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enamel’d eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honied showers
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freak’d with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk-rose, and the well attir’d woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears;
Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.
For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.
Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
Wash far away, where’er thy bones are hurl’d;
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit’st the bottom of the monstrous world,
Or whether thou, to our moist vows denied,
Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold:
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth;
And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.

      Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor;
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high
Through the dear might of him that walk’d the waves;
Where, other groves and other streams along,
With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love.
There entertain him all the Saints above,
In solemn troops, and sweet societies,
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more:
Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood.

      Thus sang the uncouth swain to th’oaks and rills,
While the still morn went out with sandals gray;
He touch’d the tender stops of various quills,
With eager thought warbling his Doric lay;
And now the sun had stretch’d out all the hills,
And now was dropp’d into the western bay;
At last he rose, and twitch’d his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

Poetryfoundation.com

 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.

Poetryfoundation.com

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
         The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
         And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
         And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
         And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
         The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
         Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
         The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
         No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
         Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
         Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
         Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
         How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
         Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
         The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
         And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
         The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
         If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
         The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
         Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
         Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
         Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
         Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
         Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
         And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
         The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
         And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
         The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
         Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
         The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
         And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
         Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
         And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
         To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
         With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
         Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
         They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
         The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
         That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
         This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
         Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
         Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
         Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.

For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
         Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
         Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
         “Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
         To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.

“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
         That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
         And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
         Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
         Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.

“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,
         Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
         Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

“The next with dirges due in sad array
         Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
         Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

THE EPITAPH
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.

Poetryfoundation.com

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