by: Megan Jenkins (alumni)
“Is is romantic how all my elegies eulogize me?”“The Lakes” by Taylor Swift
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, elegy is defined as “a poem in elegiac couplets,” , “a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation especially for one who is dead,” and/or “a pensive or reflective poem that is usually nostalgic or melancholy” (Merriam Webster).
A simpler definition that brings all these together can be “elegy is a form of poetry that typically reflects on death or loss,” (Literary Devices).
Elegy’s etymology (try saying that nine times fast) stems from the Greek word èlegos and elegeia which means “mournful poem”.
A common word that is often associated with elegy is eulogy. While they sound the same, as well as share common meanings, there is in fact a difference.
Merriam-Webster defines eulogy as “a commendatory oration or writing especially in honor of one deceased,” or “high praise” (Merriam-Webster).
Eulogy’s etymology stems from the Greek word eulogia which means “high praise” which later influenced the Latin eulogium which means “inscription on a tomb”.
Elegy vs. Eulogy
So, an elegy is a poem/poetic style writing that laments and/or reflects sorrow and melancholy, while eulogy is a written (often spoken) piece that celebrates the deceased. Furthermore, elegies are in the style of a poetic form while eulogies are not. Merriam-Webster Dictionary created an article on further differentiation in “‘Elegy’ Vs. ‘Eulogy’: How To Speak About What Is Lost“.
Phillis Wheatley, a pre-colonial poet in the pre 19th century America, wrote several elegies in remembrance of either those she knew or for others who hired her to write on their behalf. One of her famous elegies is “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth“. The poem was dedicated to the Earl of Dartmouth (1731-1801) and was published in Wheatley’s collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
Some other elegies include:
- “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield…”
- “To a Gentleman and Lady on the Death of the Lady’s Brother and Sister, and a Child of the Name Avis, Aged One Year“
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat: What pangs excruciating must molest, What sorrows labour in my parent's breast? Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd: Such, such my case. And can I then but pray Others may never feel tyrannic sway? -"To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth" by Phillis Wheatley (stanza #3, lines 5-12)
For more on Phillis Wheatley, check out our post “A Poet & A Poem: Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought From AFRICA to AMERICA”
Dr./Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a eulogy on September 18th, 1963 in remembrance of Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Diane Wesley- the children that were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, more infamously known as the Birmingham Church Bombing on September 15th, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama.
The eulogy is titled “Eulogy for the Martyred Children“.
Here is a quote from the eulogy, cited from Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute;
“There is an amazing democracy about death. It is not aristocracy for some of the people, but a democracy for all of the people. Kings die and beggars die; rich men and poor men die; old people die and young people die. Death comes to the innocent and it comes to the guilty. Death is the irreducible common denominator of all men.
I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity’s affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.
Dr./Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Eulogy for the Martyred Children“
Overall, an elegy is a poem/poetic form of writing that laments while a eulogy is a writing/oration that celebrates a deceased- albeit in sorrowful circumstances. Either way, both share commonalities in themes of discussing death and the deceased.