Elegy: what it is, definition, meaning, origin, characteristics, and more. 


What is the elegy? 

It is one of the most important sub-genres of the lyric genre in literature, which mainly includes themes related to sadness, lamentation and pain for the physical departure of a loved one or any other situation that causes these human feelings.

The elegy is characterized by an attitude that consists of lamenting everything that is lost in human life, from life, to time, illusion, hope, feelings, loved ones, among others that will give rise to feelings of sadness and that are expressed through this lyrical composition.

Meaning of elegy

The term -elegía- comes from the Greek élegos, which refers to a term used to designate a kind of mourning song. Thus, the term gave rise to a new category of the lyric genre to designate works that expressed the brevity of life and sadness through remembrance.

What is the elegy


The elegy is defined as a type of poetic composition that mainly expresses feelings of sadness due to the death of a loved one or a love. Often its themes revolve around the loss of illusion and hope due to unfortunate events that trigger these feelings in the human being.

Origin of elegy

It is considered that the birth of the elegy dates back to antiquity, especially in Greece where the elegy was a poem composed of stanzas and two verses, which was then known as elegiac distich and one of the most important compositions of the oral tradition. In its beginnings, the elegy was performed in song and was sung accompanied by the melody of a flute.

At this time, the Greek poets not only included in the elegy themes about death, but also included other themes related to broader contents such as defeats, the passage of time, nostalgia, catastrophes, among other aspects that trigger feelings and sensations of sadness. With the passage of time the elegy begins to be one of the most widespread subgenres throughout the world, producing important works of Latin poets.

It is during the Renaissance that the elegy experiences its greatest production of works in the Spanish language, although by this time the themes it included refer to themes of less lamentation, given that when it reaches the Latin tradition it begins to interact with the theme of love completely.

Characteristics of the elegy

Losses of the human being: although in some areas of the world the elegy referred to the loss of love in particular, the truth is that in principle it includes any element, feeling or person, so that it portrays any type of loss suffered by the human being with the passage of time. This is the main reason why he will also include in his compositions situations that evoke feelings such as anguish, nostalgia, melancholy, exhaustion, among other dimensions of feelings.


In its beginnings the elegy maintained a metric structured in two verses formed by a hexameter and a pentameter, which as we mentioned, was designated with the name of “elegiac distich”. It is with his incursion into Spanish literature that he began to write from free verse.


This is undoubtedly one of the most important characteristics of the elegy, since its poetic texts have a strong load of expressiveness given the subject to which they are addressed. Thus, in the composition the author exposes his feelings of sadness, pain, passion, nostalgia and melancholy for the loss of any aspect of human life.

How to write an elegy?

For the writing of such a poem, it is important to take into account the following aspects:

Make a brainstorming session 

It is important to keep in mind that in the case of the elegy, we are not only talking about the loss of people, but also about all kinds of elements that have been lost and that leave feelings of absence, such as places, time, etc. Therefore, if you have not yet defined the theme to which you would like to address the elegy, you can consider several options.

You can start by writing a list of people you have admired, loved too much, relatives, friends, etc., they can even be historical characters, you decide. If you do not want to address a person, then you can look at events of the past, a childhood memory, places that have been visited, among others.

Describe the sensations 

Once you have taken the starting point, write down the sensations and feelings that thinking about it produces in you, here we will discover what it produces in you and what you want to express in the lyrical composition. As we identify our feelings we will build the tone that the poem will have.

For example, if you want to write about the departure of a person, you can write specific words such as sadness, absence, memory, nostalgia, etc.

Identify the reason why you are writing the elegy

Now that you have started, it is time to write why you are looking at this element that causes you pain or sadness. Describe the moment you are in and what kind of relationship you have with what you are writing about. You can even explain the reasons and circumstances that led to the situation, the reason for the person’s departure, the change you long for, etc. All of these elements are key to unleashing the feeling.

Write and write 

Now that you’ve delved into the basics of your composition, it’s time to start putting it together and writing. Ideally, you should write several drafts until you reach the final elegy, because from each of them you can take elements that have been to your liking for the composition of the result. Choose the composition that achieves the precise form, tone and subject.

Remember that to write this type of lyrical compositions it is extremely important that you have previously gone through several works of this type, because in this way you can explore many more options of poets from different eras in different themes and increase your possibilities and ideas.

Authors and most important works

Authors and most important works

Some Latin poets who stood out in elegy are Ovid, Ennius, Propertius and Tibullus. Among Hispanic poets it is possible to identify other authors such as Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Miguel de Unamuno, Federico García Lorca, Jorque Manrique, Miguel Hernández, among others.

Example of elegy 

This is an excerpt from “Elegía Interrumpida” by Octavio Paz:

Today I remember the dead of my house.

The first dead we never forget,

even if he dies of lightning, so quickly

that it does not reach the bed nor the oil paintings.

I hear the cane that hesitates on a step,

the body that takes hold in a sigh,

the door opening, the dead man entering.

From door to death there is little space

and there is hardly time to sit down,

to look up, to see the time

and find out: a quarter past eight.

To learn about other sub-genres of the lyric genre, don’t forget to visit our genres section in the Literature area.