The best elegies in English, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The Oxford English Dictionary defines an elegy as ‘A song or poem of lamentation, esp. for the dead; a memorial poem’. Death, and memorialising the dead, has long been a feature of poetry. Here are ten of the best elegies from English poetry, from the Middle Ages to the 1980s. What would you add to our list of the greatest elegiac poems in English? (Shelley’s Adonais, by the way, would have been number 11 on this list if we’d extended it beyond a top ten.)
Anonymous, Pearl. One of the first great elegies in the English language, Pearl was written by an anonymous poet in the late fourteenth century – probably the same poet who also gave us Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A lament for a child who has died, and a classic example of the medieval dream-poem, Pearl is a long work but is well worth reading, whether in the original Middle English that summons up an age long past or in a modern translation, such as the recent one by Simon Armitage.
Ben Jonson, ‘On My First Sonne’. This short poem movingly pays tribute to Jonson’s son, who we know from the poem was called Benjamin, or Ben, after his father, and who died young. Jonson says that his one sin was to entertain too many hopes for his son’s future. This is a ‘sinne’ because the child’s fate, like everyone’s, is not in Jonson’s hands, but God’s.
John Milton, ‘Lycidas’.
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 …
This 1637 poem, written thirty years before Milton’s great epic Paradise Lost was published, is an example of a pastoral elegy, and commemorates Milton’s friend from Cambridge, Edward King, who drowned in August 1637. Although Samuel Johnson hated it, declaring that ‘in this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new’, the poem is widely regarded as one of the finest elegies in the English language. Its closing line, referring to ‘fresh woods, and pastures new’, is also often quoted (and misquoted).
Katherine Philips, ‘Epitaph’.
What on Earth deserves our trust?
Youth and Beauty both are dust.
Long we gathering are with pain,
What one moment calls again.
Seven years childless marriage past,
A Son, a son is born at last:
So exactly lim’d and fair,
Full of good Spirits, Meen, and Air,
As a long life promised,
Yet, in less than six weeks dead …
Philips (1632-64) wrote this short poem as an elegy for her son, ‘H. P.’, who died just six weeks after he was born. The joyous exultation with which the birth had been greeted – ‘A son, a son is born at last’ – turns to tragedy with the boy’s death, in this heart-wrenching and accessible elegy by an underrated seventeenth-century female poet.
Thomas Gray, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. Probably inspired by the death of fellow poet Richard West in 1742, Gray’s ‘Elegy’ was completed in 1750 and published the following year. It was one of the most popular poems of the second half of the eighteenth century and remained a classroom favourite well into the twentieth century. Technically, though, it shouldn’t really be on this list of best elegies – because in terms of its form Gray’s ‘Elegy’ is not an elegy. It doesn’t mourn West or any one other individual, but is instead more of an ode, which sees Gray meditating on death and the lives of simple rustic folk.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H.
Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,
A hand that can be clasp’d no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
One of the great poems of the Victorian era, this long elegy in 130 ‘cantos’ is a sort of verse diary charting Tennyson’s grief over the sudden death of his best friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, in 1833. Tennyson’s powerful portrayal of grief, leading gradually to acceptance, is well-known for some of its memorable lines – ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ and ‘better to have loved and lost’ – but there’s a wealth of fine poems here in this larger poem. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, this poem should strike a chord.
Christina Rossetti, ‘A Dirge’.
Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo’s calling,
Or when grapes are green in the cluster,
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster
For their far off flying
From summer dying …
This poem is not one of Rossetti’s absolute classics, but a phrase from it has had a new lease of life in the last few years: J. K. Rowling borrowed ‘the cuckoo’s calling’ from the poem and used it as the title for one of her novels.
W. H. Auden, ‘Stop all the clocks’. Also known as ‘Funeral Blues’, this poem from Auden’s cycle of Twelve Songs reached a whole new audience when it was recited in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. What use is the world if it does not have the one we love contained within it? When they are gone, everything becomes pointless, useless, colourless. This is what Auden’s classic poem captures so well.
Tony Harrison, ‘Timer’. Stephen Spender called Tony Harrison’s elegies on the deaths of his parents the sort of poems he felt as if he’d waited his whole life to read. This 1980 poem sees Harrison reflecting on the death of his mother, and on his father’s insistence that the eternity ring he bought for Harrison’s mother should be cremated with her body, since it was his way of ensuring that, when Harrison’s father died, he would be reunited with his wife in the afterlife. After the cremation, Harrison goes to collect his mother’s clothing and the eternity ring is also among his mother’s belongings.
Douglas Dunn, ‘The Kaleidoscope’. Dunn, a Scottish poet born in 1942, wrote Elegies – his most critically acclaimed collection – in honour of his wife, who died young from cancer in 1981. Elegies is written in a clear, honest, and direct voice and ‘The Kaleidoscope’, a sonnet about the nature of grief in the wake of a loved one’s death, is a fine example of how Dunn created moving poetry out of personal tragedy.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.