Gilgamesh mourns Enkidu

Conventions of the Elegy


"How long did I slap your corpse-face
to drive a summer into its ice?
Forgive me.
But, O, Enkidu,
how am I to know myself without you?"
— from Gilgamesh, translated by Derrek Hines

What's an Elegy?

The usual definiton of an elegy is, "A poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead," or, in a more specific setting, "(in Greek and Roman poetry) a poem written in elegiac couplets, as notably by Catullus and Propertius." But the first is both too general and too specific, while the second limits itself to a very specific meter, one not seen in contemporary poetry. So I like Peter Sacks' definition for its inclusiveness and consideration. According to him, an elegy is "a poem of mortal loss and consolation."

An elegy is not an epitaph, ode, or eulogy. Epitaphs are very brief, odes solely exalt their subjects, and eulogies are most often written in formal prose. Some important examples of elegies:

Expectations in the Elegy

The elements of a traditional elegy mirror three stages of loss in moving from grief to consolation:

  1. a lament, where the speaker expresses grief and sorrow,
  2. praise and admiration of the idealized dead,
  3. finally, consolation and solace (the dead one is not dead, but lives on in another world).
Other conventions include:

Conventions specific to the Pastoral Elegy Conventions seen less frequently