The Function and Mechanics of the Elegy

Death is perhaps the most common and well known element of human existence, but how we choose to conceive of, deal with and grieve death and the embodiment of loss are not. Many, if not all religions have developed interpretations and explanations of death and what happens after death, and every culture has developed some form of ritual surrounding death. Death is a shapeless form, a depth that seems to have no bottom and though we have sought to understand and interpret its farthest reaches, to penetrate its darkness as if it were a mirror that would reveal to us who we truly are it has remained an enigma. Death has been despised and worshiped, feared and celebrated for millennia. Death has fascinated human beings since we have been able to question our own mortality. And it is our mortality which makes life so precious. Nothing seems to define the boundaries of life more precisely than death. So, it is arguably the void that was left in the wake of death that stimulated society’s desire to seek an understanding of it, and at the heart of this evolution of thought surrounding death have been religions, authors, poets and the elegy. Kelly S. Walsh the author of The Unbearable Openness of Death: Elegies of Rilke and Wolf states that “With absence, death and the finitude of human existence recognized as insuperable facts, the modernist poetics nevertheless possesses an irrepressible compulsion to give some figure to what has been lost” (Walsh 2). According to the Encyclopedia of Death & the Human Experience, the poetic form of the elegy emerged in the ancient Greek civilization and has continued to evolve as it has been assimilated throughout the centuries by different cultures (Dennis). The primary function of an elegy is to process love, loss, longing and grief in lyrical form, but there is also a secondary function; to cultivate these emotions in their audiences. However, for an elegy to achieve its primary and secondary functions there are two conditions which must be met; the author must be captured by the thought of death, and the author must utilize language in such a way as to instill the feelings of love, longing and grief.

Many people and cultures throughout history have held to the ideal that a life is a narrative, and as such the story of one’s life is of vital importance. Humans as a species are relatively young on the evolutionary scale so far as our biological structure is concerned, but the human constructs of culture and society have continued to evolve for millennia. The essence of the story is perhaps the sharpest defining feature of human existence. Without stories, the transmission of what had been learned from one generation to the next would prove nearly impossible, especially given the complexity of human culture. Because we group together for survival, and because we remember the stories of our lives and the lives of those we share our lives with, we have had to develop ways to deal with and process, the loss and longing wrought by death. This is in part both how and why the poetic form of the elegy has evolved over time because paralyzing effect of loss. Through the lamenting process of an elegy poets have sought to find and bring closure to the narrative of one’s life so that grieving can come to fruition and their story can be passed on with meaning.

The shape of this story has evolved to meet the needs of the culture and the times of the poet. A short sampling of authors such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Wilfred Owen, Federico Garcia Lorca, Walt Whitman, Anna Akhmatova, and Virginia Wolf will reveal this to be an accurate assessment. For instance, “Lorca in his Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias” decided that it was better to focus on the story of the individual’s life rather than to convolute it with any imaginary interpretations of what the afterlife—which he rejected—would hold for that individual (Lorca 582-83). While Rilke in “The First Elegy” explored what life would look and feel like for an individual after death as he compared his new life to the life he had lived as a human (Rilke 5-11). And Wilfred Owen in his “Dulce Et Decorum Est” focused on the imagery and emotion felt at the moment of one’s passing into death, not pretty but painful and grotesque (Owen 188-89). The similarity that all these elegies share is the importance of the story. The story helps us to understand the life of an individual or a people, to gain a sense of the times at their death, to remember the trauma of their passing, and to cope with the loss, which all helps to bring closure to their narrative.

Given the necessity of a complete story the reasoning for the elegy makes sense, but the authoring of these stories in elegiac form would not have been possible if the poets were not captured by thoughts of death in the first place. Edmond Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, first published in 1759, suggests that the human mind becomes enraptured in “Astonishment” because of what he called the “sublime”, a delight in the terror resulting from the idea of “pain and danger”, which are portends of death (Burke 131-33). Based on Burke’s analysis of these particular moments and using the elegies written by Owen, Lorca and Rilke as a basis for argument, it can be derived that death has captured the minds of these authors. This phenomenon can be evinced with Lorca’s use of repetition language in the opening stanza of “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias”:

At five in the afternoon.
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A frail of lime ready prepared
at five in the afternoon.
The rest was death, and death alone
at five in the afternoon. (Lorca 577).

The precise moment Lorca learned of Ignacio’s passing was burned into his mind and subsequently so it is also etched into the mind of the audience as they are brought back to that moment over and over again. Of course this is not exactly what Burke suggested by the idea of death, however, Rilke wrote “fruitful by now? Isn’t it time our loving freed/us from the one we love and we, trembling, endured:/as the arrow endures the string, and in that gathering/momentum/becomes more than itself. Because to stay is to be nowhere.//” showing that the loss of someone else was a death to the one left to mourn (Rilke 8-9). With this interpretation it can be seen that receiving news of a loved one’s passing has the power to astonish and to instill a sense of the sublime and further, that death has captured their consciences.

If, the primary function of the elegy is to help the authors grieve the loss of loved ones and to make sense of death then, the secondary function is to instill in their audience the emotions they feel. In fact, this is what Kelly S. Walsh purports in The Unbearable Openness of Death: Elegies of Rilke and Wolf. While describing the insufficiencies of language to adequately address death and loss, Walsh states “the work of art becomes both the process of reopening the wound—using the pain to make something of death and transience—and the consolation that leaves readers profoundly affected and dissatisfied” (Walsh 3). Wilfred Owen even asked us to take his place and envision death as if we were experiencing the death of a friend:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, (Owen 189).

Thus, catapulting the reader into the carnage that is war, into the incomprehensible, where no words can adequately describe the emotions felt, but emotions are felt nonetheless. At this junction not only is the author caught in a single moment, in astonishment, but so is the reader. According to Burke, the terror of the sublime can only be achieved through the obscurity of a situation and “The proper means of conveying the affections of the mind from one to another, is by words” because they force us to use our own imaginations, thus empathizing with the author and the subject (Burke 134).

The imagery that is employed in an elegy is important because as the result of the inadequacies of language, it is the imagery that the audience assimilates into themselves and relates to with their own emotions. Sigmund Freud wrote a complex analysis of the usage of some specific types of imagery that cause terror in his publication entitled The Uncanny, which will lend itself to understanding how a sense of Burke’s “sublime” can be transmitted from an author to a reader. According to Freud, the “uncanny” is something that was once known (homely), which was then forgotten or repressed (unhomely) and has now reemerged, and it is the reemergence which instills a sense of terror (Freud 134). Further, the “uncanny” emerges in the space where reality and fantasy are blurred, where the author exposes but refrains from completely allowing an image or being the full credence of existence, and is therefore left obscure (Freud 150). To Freud the essence of the uncanny stems from “Infantile” experiences, and can reemerge in the “idea of the ‘double’ (the Doppleganger)” which causes the person to “become unsure of his true self” and the self “may thus be duplicated, divided and interchanged” (Freud 141-42). Sufficient doubles are; mirror images, shadows, guardian spirits, ghosts and the soul. Thus, when we read of Rilke’s “Angelic orders” who are juxtaposed with “Every angel’s terrifying” given Freud’s interpretation it can be seen why the angels are terrifying (Rilke 5). Because of the influence of many of the more popular religions in Western culture, angels are usually thought of as being benevolent, or as messengers and guardian spirits, but here Rilke diverges from that interpretation and immediately brings into question our own fears of death and what those beings in the afterlife intend for the order of the living. Images are highly powerful and emotive because they contain all the thoughts and emotions a reader has ever associated with that image without the author having to voice them for us, thus, we see that there can be tremendous power in the obscurity of words to foster the emotions of audiences.

Once the two conditions—a captured mind and a provocative use of language—are met what is left is grieving and telling the story. The elegies of Rilke, Owen and Lorca bring to light what Walsh stated in her analysis of the elegies of Rilke and Wolf, “the conflict between what one should feel and what one actually feels” as they sought to tell the stories of those they loved and to understand death (Walsh 10). Both Lorca and Rilke notice that the Dead’s stories continue on in the lives of those who loved them. Lorca traces his own responses to the deceased, early on stating “I will not see it!” repeatedly, expressing contempt because if he sees the truth then it means the story has concluded (Lorca 578-79). While Rilke suggest with these lines: “as we outgrow our mother’s breast. But we, who need/such great mysteries, whose source of blessed progress/so often is our sadness—could we exist without them?” that the living need the sorrow provided by mourning the dead in order to remain connected to the living, and thus we assimilate and carry on their stories (Rilke 11). This is the task of the elegy, it is in the writing of the elegy and the retelling of the story in a way that makes sense to the author and the society which transmits the story of our loved ones and thus, grieving is achieved. This interpretation of the elegy is perhaps best evinced in Lorca’s “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias” lines 213 and 214:

Nobody knows you. No. But I sing for you.
For posterity I sing of your profile and grace. (Lorca 583).

Lorca with his insistence that the story of one’s life without adding to it “Because you have died for ever,” and there can be nothing else added, determines that telling the story of passed loved ones is the highest honor we can bestow (Lorca 583). Each life is a narrative and grieving is as much a part of the human experience as birth because death comes to all those who live so, we must, as culture evolves also transmit the lessons we have learned in how to grieve.

I began this analysis of elegies with three questions: “What is the primary function of an elegy and do the intents differ between authors?” and “What are the implications of the imagery utilized within the elegies and further, what does it represent?” and finally, “to discover how language is used in an elegy and why it is important.” I found that the function of an elegy is to process love, loss, longing and grief in lyrical form, but I also discovered a secondary function; to cultivate these emotions in their audiences. It was the latter function that became most interesting because as Rilke suggested, it is grieving which connects us to the rest of the living so, it seems that we as humans are allowed to grieve only through sharing our sorrow. A painting or a movie as Burke points out is inadequate at transmitting passion because it is only with words that the necessary obscurity is harnessed to instill and excite the human heart to the relevant point of sharing grief. It is ironic that human culture and subsequently our literature and poetry evolved through the oral and written transmission of history—the sum of lessons learned—because now we are dependent on words to fully process life and furthermore, death.


Dennis, Michael Robert. “Elegy.” Encyclopedia of Death & the Human Experience. Ed. Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2009. 401-404. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 3 Mar. 2013.

This encyclopedic entry traces the birth and the evolution of the Elegy. Elegiac form has taken many forms as time has passed and different cultures have absorbed the form into their contemporary writing. Most notably elegies tend to focus on subject matter such as love and longing, but also on loss, suffering and grief over the dead and dying. At different times and in different cultures elegies have employed mythical and religious entities, and sought to make contact with the dead, but mostly they have been used as a means to process loss of people and institutions which were dear to the people who wrote them. The encyclopedic entry is useful for this paper because it helps to identify what the uses of an elegy are and why they have been implemented.

Ed. Ashfield, Andrew, and de Bolla, Peter. The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

Edmond Burke’s “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” analyzes the difference between the sublime and beauty, providing a standard for sorting the two. The source of the “sublime” is a feeling of terror, an astonishment that captures the mind and does not let it focus on anything else. Death is the greatest of terrors. The obscurity of death and the afterlife, the fact that for most people it is something that is forced upon us and not readily embraced signifies that it has power over us and that is sublime. However, for something to be truly sublime it must be witnessed from a distance, the kind of distance that sight and words convey to us. Burkes propositions provide a basis for analyzing the language and grammar contained within the obscure stanzas of an elegy, whose intent it seems is more to instill a feeling than an understanding.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Trans. David McLintock, and Hugh Haughton. New York:
Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Sigmund Freud traces the sources of The Uncanny the union of what has been repressed and has resurfaced. The uncanny thus transforms into what Burke identified as the paralyzing terror which captivates the mind. Freud identified several causes of the uncanny: omnipotence of thoughts, instantaneous wish-fulfillment, secret harmful forces and the return of the dead. Freud further suggests that there must be a conflict of judgment between reality and fantasy. Utilizing Freud’s analysis of symbolism and how these symbols spur on the evolution of the uncanny, the terror that leads to Burke’s “astonishment,” it may be possible to derive deeper meaning to the symbolism contained within an elegy.

Lorca, Federico Garcia. Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Majias. 1935. The Norton Anthology:
World Literature. Ed. Peter Simon and Coner Sullivan. 3rd ed. Vol. F. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 577-83. Print.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. Trans. A. Poulin Jr. New York: Houghton Miffin, 2005. Print.
Stallworthy, Jon. The Oxford Book of War Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1984. Print.
Walsh, Kelly S. “The Unbearable Openness of Death: Elegies of Rilke and Woolf.” Journal of Modern Literature 32, no. 4, 2009: 1-21,155-156.

This is a complex analysis of the elegies of both Rainer Maria Rilke and Virginia Wolf, which seeks to divulge the meaning of their elegies by dissecting the literary techniques each has utilized in their writing. Walsh suggests that Wolf and Rilke’s elegies embody the modernism characteristic of insufficiency, and that this insufficiency is the inconsistency of grieving without end (Walsh 2). Further, that it is by embracing loss, absence, death and the unknown half of life that true grieving and healing is possible. Walsh claims that the complexity of their eulogies stems from the shortfall of language, which is inadequate to fully describe loss and absence. Thus, because of this shortfall, ambiguous imagery is utilized to blur the lines between this realm and the next. This analysis with the combination of both Freud’s “Uncanny” and Burke’s “Sublime” a deeper analysis of Rilke’s elegies will reveal deeper meaning to the elegies and to why Rilke was captured with the thought of death and the afterlife.

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