The elegy was originally called distracted distiches. According to this, Elegy was a general expression for poems, written in distant times. The distichon is a combination consisting of hexameter and pentameter. Later, elegies are mainly regarded as poetic poems written to express grief over death, separation, loss, and the like, or portray the contradiction between ideal and life.
The word comes from ancient Greek (ἐλεγεία ~ élegeía), even if the word origin is not clearly clarified, the term presumably going back to a phyrical flute. It is probable that the first elegies were presented to flute music, and resembled the anthem or the ode in terms of their musical character. Let us look at an example of ancient understanding.
Non ego nobilium sedeo studiosus equorum;
Cui tamen ipsa faves, vincat ut ille, precor.
Ut loquerer tecum, veni, tecumque sederem,
Ne tibi non notus, quen facis, esset amor.
No, I’m not sitting here as a lover of racy horses;
I wish you, of course, the victory to which you are holding.
Just to talk to you, I came, I will sit with you,
That you are not ignorant of what a love you arouse
The above example is a stanza from the work of Amores, a collection of 49 poems, of Ovid, a Roman poet. The elegy is understood as a love affair, which was written exclusively in distributions. It has therefore no free rhythm, but is subject to firm rules. Regarding the rhyme scheme, however, there is a great freedom, since there is no fixed final sequence sequence.
It becomes clear that the essential characteristic of the elegy is the strict sequence of distichs, and the sad, partly plaintive character also sounds. This development can be understood very nicely over the centuries. Let us take a look at an example of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: a stanza of the Roman elegies that arose about 1800 years later.
Let not you, my beloved, rejoice, that you will give me so quickly to me.
Believe it, I do not think cheeky, do not think low of you.
In many instances the arrows of the Cupor are: some chinks,
And from the creeping poison, the heart is sick for years. […] Goethe’s Roman Elegies are almost parade examples for the use of elegiac distiches, which are clearly orientated to the love complaints of Ovid. Goethe’s work, which was originally to be titled Erotica Romana, presents a lyrical ego that tells about erotic and art-theoretical adventures, pointing to the development of the elegy as a poem of the poem.
Friedrich Schiller, however, has even more extended the thematic spectrum of the elegy. Thus, in his walk, he takes the external form of the elegy, but does not use the verses to express grief, but points to a contradiction between the ideal and the real life in society when he almost antithetically freedom and narrowness faces.
Greet me, my mountain with the reddish radiant peak!
Be welcome to me, sun, who is so lovely to him!
I greet you also, animated corridor, you, whirring lindens,
And the cheerful choir, which weighs on the branches,
Quiet blueness, you too, which immensely pours out
Around the brown mountain, over the green forest,
Even around me, who finally escaped the room of prison
And the close conversation, joyfully saves to you. […] Even though the topic spectrum is obviously expanded, the external form – that is, the use of distributions – remains fundamentally preserved. Friedrich Schiller himself understands by no means a true lamentation under the elegy. Rather, the elegy expresses the grief that the ideal world is far from reality. He himself describes this in a treatise in 1795:
If the poet contrasts the nature of art and the ideal of reality in such a way that the representation of the first is predominant, and the pleasure of the same dominant feeling, I call it elegiac […] (from naive and sentimental poetry)
Accordingly, the elegy is subject to a change in meaning. The term was therefore only narrowed down over the centuries, then greatly expanded, then again narrowed. If the Greeks still covered a wide range of subjects, when the battlements or erotic contents determined the elegies, the Romans mostly composed erotic, bucolic, and idyllic elegies, which not only took up motives but placed personal experience in the foreground.
In Germany, the elegy gains in importance only in sensibility, with the bucolic motifs predominantly dominating the Roman elegy. Goethe also took up this motif in his Roman elegies. Furthermore, the poem form is found in classical music, with the main focus being the contradiction between the ideal and reality. Here the elegy is raised almost to the literary genre, which does not have to be written in distiches when it expresses the described contradiction.
Note: As a bucolic poetry, poetry is described which deals with the life of cattle herds. Works of this kind usually depict an immensely dreamy, picturesque idyll, which shows the beautiful and carefree life of unheroic people. Bucolic means calm and peaceful.
Nowadays the use of a fixed metric, no matter what type, can be neglected. Elegies are poems of all kinds, which have a sad, lamenting theme and are often written in melancholy mood or wistful complaint. Exemplary are the Stadthallen Elegies by Gottfried Benn.
Overview: Characteristics of an Elegy
Since the origins of the elegy in antiquity, there are two fundamental determinations which characterize the poem form. On the one hand, it means a kind of the two-lingers, and on the other a work which has a resigned, discouraging, accusatory mood. Both views can be united in one poem.
The elegy was originally considered a poem written in distichs. A two-line is formed as a distichon, which is formed from a hexameter and a pentameter. This determination is found chiefly in elegies of antiquity. The term is used predominantly formally. There are already wistful feelings and a plaintive character.
If we understand the elegy on this formal level, it is not really to be distinguished from the epigram, which also consists of distich in the ancient variant. The inscription on graves and sacrifices was originally designated as an epigram.
In the course of time, however, the wistful and plaintive character of the elegies crystallized more and more and became the essential feature of the poem form. The term became the characteristic of an expression and separated from the strict guidelines.
Accordingly, the content of a poem can explain this to the elegy, the form playing a subordinate role and being able to be realized in other stanzas and verses. For example, in the seventeenth century Elegies were mainly composed in the so-called elegiac Alexandrians, who had a cross-rhyme.
Note: This duality of the elegy can be traced very well to Goethe and Schiller, who approached the form almost at the same time. Goethe introduced a traditional path in the “Roman Elegies”, clearly orientating on the ancient form and designing a love affair. Schiller created a philosophical reflection, although his work “The Gods of Greece” is indeed elegiac, but has no distiches.
But even if the understanding of the term changed in the years, there are for every time some works and, above all, eleven poets, who influenced the understanding of the poem form decisively. We would like to introduce you to the most important representatives.
Elegy poet (chronological and regional)
Greek Antiquity: Kallinos, Tyrtaios, Mimnermos, Solon
Roman Antiquity: Gallus, Catullus, Tibull, Properz, Ovid, Martial
German composer Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Bertolt Brecht, Friedrich Hölderlin, Friedrich Schiller, Rainer Maria Rilke, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Klabund.