• A song, verse, or poem in a grieving or mournful tone, particularly one which commemorates or honors the dead


One custom that is found in cultures all around the world is to memorialize the awe-inspiring achievements that great figures leave behind when they pass. Such commemoration gives us the chance to show our gratitude for their noble deeds, and recognize the inspirational impact they have on us. Whether through a eulogy, an elegy, or a flower placed at a monument, we all have our own ways of celebrating life even in grief.

An elegy is a song, a poem, or some other lyrical work that evokes a lamenting or grieving mood, especially when composed or performed to honor the dead. Not all elegies memorialize someone who has passed away, but can also enshrine those things or people which endure or live. What all elegies share, though, is a sad or dark tone - a musical elegy often accomplishes this with a slow tempo or low, rich harmonies, while a poetic one might do so by employing flowery words and heroic imagery. When a piece of music or verse is distinguished as an elegy, it often implies that the work, besides being melancholy or ennobling the dead, is reflective in character, compelling listeners to ponder their own lives or that of the individual being honored. For instance, an elegy to Muhammad Ali would certainly highlight his formidable accomplishments, both inside and outside of the boxing ring, but it would likely also prompt us to consider the importance of fighting prejudice and stereotypes through respect and personal betterment. A true elegy, no matter who or what it enshrines, works if it gives us all pause.

Example: Marc Antony’s elegy to the slain Caesar is one of the most memorable monologues in the Shakespearean canon.

Example: At the monument to the nation’s founder, his words are chiseled into the marble base as an elegy to his remarkable accomplishments.


Elegy, which first arrived in English with its present meaning in the early-16th century, comes from the Middle French elegie, which means “lamenting poem” and which in turn stems from the Latin word elegia, meaning “mournful verse.” This latter term derives from the Ancient Greek term elegeia ode, which meant “grieving music” and was taken from elegeios, an adjective meaning “mournful.” Elegeios comes from elegos, meaning “mourning song or verse” and possibly traces from Phrygian origin, though this is uncertain.

Derivative Words

Elegiac: This adjective form of elegy indicates that something or someone has a lamenting or contemplative character to it, especially when reflecting on the life or deeds of the deceased.

Example: The statements read by various world leaders marking the war’s centennial were elegiac commemorations of the heroes who dedicated their lives to humanity.

Similar Words

Eulogy: Like an elegy, a eulogy is also a mourning or memorializing of the deceased in words. The key distinction between the two, though, is that while the former is done in verse or meter, the latter is rhetorical or prosaic. Additionally, while elegies can commemorate the living as well as the dead, eulogies almost exclusively pertain to those who have passed. Reflecting these nuances is the difference in their origins - elegy comes from the Greek elegos for “mournful song or poetry,” while eulogy ultimately comes from the joining of the Greek prefix eu-, meaning “good” or “well,” and the root logia, meaning “uttering” or “speaking.”

Example: The eulogy for the firefighter was a touching reminder of her dedication to helping others in dire need.

In Literature

From Tennessee Williams's Where I Live: Selected Essays:

So successfully have we disguised from ourselves the intensity of our own feelings, the sensibility of our own hearts, that plays in the tragic tradition have begun to seem untrue. For a couple of hours we may surrender ourselves to a world of fiercely illuminated values in conflict, but when the stage is covered and the auditorium lighted, almost immediately there is a recoil of disbelief. "Well, well!" we say as we shuffle back up the aisle, while the play dwindles behind us with the sudden perspective of an early Chirico painting. By the time we have arrived at Sardi's, if not as soon as we pass beneath the marquee, we have convinced ourselves once more that life has as little resemblance to the curiously stirring and meaningful occurrences on the stage as a jingle has to an elegy of Rilke.

In this passage from one of his essays, the famed playwright reflects on the disheartening disconnection that theatergoers perceive between real life and the works of drama that stylize and depict it. So wide is this gulf, to him, that he compares it to the stark contrast between a trite commercial jingle and a solemn, lyrical verse, or elegy, from the famed poet Rainer Maria Rilke.


  • An elegy has a sad and mournful melody.

  • An elegy elevates the person it commemorates.

  • Clergy gave a moving elegy to the departed.


Song, Music, Poetry, Death, Mourning

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of elegy. Did you use elegy in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.