An elegy is a poem that laments a person’s death, containing deep reflection on the person’s life or life itself. Take a look at some elegy examples below.
Whether you’re preparing a eulogy for a loved one or checking out elegy poems for an English literature assignment, you’ll likely find that famous examples of elegies are a heartfelt form of poetry.
Some famous elegy examples will ring with familiar words—such as O Captain! My Captain!— while others are lesser-known.
The definition of elegy is simple: it’s a poem in which the author mourns a death, and it does not have to follow an ABAB rhyme scheme, be organized into hexameter meter, or otherwise follow a poetic form. Of course, many elegists utilize literary devices to make their points (both in traditional and modern elegies). Still, no specific devices need to be used for a poem to qualify as an elegy.
Feel free to read our post on the different words used to describe poetic structure.
- Top Ten Elegy Examples
- 1. In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred Lord Tennyson
- 2. Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- 3. In Memory of W.B. Yeats by W.H. Auden
- 4. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray
- 5. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d by Walt Whitman
- 6. Elegy 5 by Ovid
- 7. Sonnet On the Death of Richard West by Thomas Gray
- 8. O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman
- 9. Lycidas by John Milton
- 10. Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Top Ten Elegy Examples
1. In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Lord Tennyson’s touching elegy on the death of his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam delves into the deeply personal nature of grief. The poem also discusses religion and science, subjects that were a hotbed of debate when the poem was released in 1850. Hallam died at just 22 years old of a brain hemorrhage. In Memoriam was a stark contrast to Lord Tennyson’s other work, which was often based in mythology.
2. Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley’s striking elegy reflecting on the death of poet John Keats’ battle with tuberculosis provided the striking line, (Adonais) “is not dead/ He hath awakened from the dream of life.” The poem cements the memory of Keats in Shelley’s memory as a beautiful, eternal being, despite his frail human form. You might also find our guide on how to write an obituary helpful.
3. In Memory of W.B. Yeats by W.H. Auden
Split into three distinct sections, In Memory of W.B. Yeats addresses the writer’s demise, the world’s response, and what poetry meant in the midst of the death and destruction on the horizon in 1939. Allusion and alliteration work together to paint a clear picture of what a post-Yeats world meant to Auden.
4. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray
Gray’s elegy isn’t a traditional elegy directed at a specific person. Rather, it’s a reflection on death itself. Gray discusses how death is inescapable, and no amount of riches or level of status can change the fact that all bodies wind up in a cemetery or tomb in time. Country Churchyard explores how the lives of those in the cemetery Gray is reflecting upon could have been different if they had been born into a higher status, and whether remaining unknown in the world is a better option when considering the troubles that come with fame and fortune.
5. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d by Walt Whitman
Whitman’s tribute to the late Abraham Lincoln was written in long-form and was a welcome addition to the outpouring of sympathy shown by the American people after the president’s assassination. The free-verse poem utilizes pastoral elegy progression, moving from the immediate difficulty of grief to a profound sense of acceptance.
6. Elegy 5 by Ovid
Born in 43 B.C., Ovid’s influence was far-reaching, affecting writers in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This ancient Greek elegy describes the demise of a love affair between Ovid and his lover Corinna and is a small part of Ovid’s vast volumes of poetry. The poem’s elegiac couplet form was common among Greek poets, including Ovid’s peers Catullus and Propertius.
7. Sonnet On the Death of Richard West by Thomas Gray
In this introspective elegy, Gray laments his feelings on the death of his close friend. Sonnet touches on the personal nature of grief, stating, “My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine; / And in my breast the imperfect joy expire.” Like other elegies written in the pastoral style, Sonnet transitions the reader from the stark, sharp blow of the initial stages of grief to the eventual acceptance and settling that happens over time.
8. O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman
One of the most well-known elegies, O Captain! was also written by Whitman to honor the memory of the late Abraham Lincoln. This elegy adopts a conventional style not often used by Whitman.
Published near the end of the Civil War, O Captain! reflects the feelings of many Americans after Lincoln’s death:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
9. Lycidas by John Milton
This well-known elegy tells the tale of a young man who was about to embark on a life of service as a member of the clergy but suffered an early death instead. Written in 1637, Milton’s poem honors the life of Edward King, one of Milton’s colleagues who drowned in a shipwreck. The elegy discusses several themes, including divine judgment and fame.
10. Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay
A dirge is a piece of music created for a funeral or to otherwise mourn a death. St. Vincent Millay’s Dirge Without Music discusses the beauty of death—the thought that the dead become food for the roses—but laments that she still does not resign herself to feeling content with losing loved ones. St. Vincent Millay’s deep grief is felt intensely by the reader with the line, “More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.”
There is beauty in all of these poems. If you want more, we have recommended the best books for modern poetry lovers here.