An elegy today, normally denotes a poem or piece of music expressing sorrow for the passing of a person or following a tragic event.
The word derives from the Greek for lament; however the original Greek verse form called “elegiac distich” was not necessarily mournful and could be about war or love etc. but because it was often used for commemorative verses it frequently expressed sorrow. The word may have come from an Asiatic word for “flute”. The form (the metre) goes back as far as the eighth century B.C. and was still about in the tenth century A.D.,
During the Middle Ages there was a turn around. Whereas in ancient times the word described the metre whatever the mood, now it began describing the mood regardless of the metre. There have been exceptions, of course.
The modern meaning in English appeared in the sixteenth century. Poets had experimented with the “elegiac distich” form of the ancients, but it does not lend itself easily to English verse forms and the word “elegy” began to be almost exclusively concerned with love – lost or unrequited - or death. By the eighteenth century death had taken over and love and its many concepts delegated to inhabit the numerous other poetical forms available to it. This period saw what is usually considered to be the greatest elegy written in English: Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard.”
The Great War was a fruitful time for the form.
More to come