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William Adolphe Bouguereau - The Elegy (1899)

The expression elegy (pronunciation: [eleˈgiː] ) or lamentation poem refers to a poem often written in distiches , which, according to today's understanding, usually has sad, lamenting topics as its content. Since the Roman elegists Tibull , Properz and Ovid , mourning and lamentation as well as a longing, melancholy mood became the dominant content.

The Greek elegy

The original character of the elegy as a lamentation is addressed in Euripides ' (484-406 BC) tragedy Iphigenia on Tauris , where it is referred to as the “barbaric cry of Asian melodies”, from which it can be concluded that the elegiac lament is probably the first time developed in Asia Minor and from there passed into the Greek cultural area. Elegy is the name of a poem in older Greek literature , the verses of which are written in pentameters , later in the form of distiches composed of pentameters and hexameters . In the early days there were songs of praise to wine, songs of war, laments for the dead, the thematic spectrum is still very broad. In the course of time it is narrowed to mourning and lamenting chants, often with instrumental accompaniment ( aulos ). In Hellenism , the elegy, especially through Callimachos of Cyrene, was developed into an artistic, pretious poetry.

The Roman power of love

The subjective love energy of the Augustan period as a genre is considered a creation of Roman literature . However, recent papyrus finds make it seem possible that there were also Greek elegies with a subjective-erotic content. The first Roman elegiac was Gaius Cornelius Gallus , whose work has been lost. Main representatives are Tibullus , Properz and Ovid ; in Catullus carmen 68 one can see an anticipation of the genre (it is difficult to distinguish between a longer epigram and an elegy). The central motif is life for one's own feelings of joy in love and especially love suffering as an Epicurean alternative to social expectations, namely, above all, commitment to the state in war and politics. In Ovid, however, the seriousness of this attitude is often relativized by ironic refraction. The Roman elegy was aimed at an elite readership and only flourished briefly. It has been revived since humanism .

The elegy in modern times and modern times

In English literature, elegy has primarily meant a lament for the dead since the 16th century or, in general, a poem on the subject of death. This is how the so-called "grave poetry" ( Graveyard School ) came about, one of the first examples of which is Robert Blair's didactic poem The Grave , published in 1743, and authors such as Edward Young and Thomas Gray are among its most important exponents. How influential this cemetery poetry was in Germany is shown by authors of sensitivity such as Klopstock or Hölty , whose elegy on a village cemetery is "not an imitation of Gray, just an implementation of the same idea". Hölty's elegies are the expression of a “sweet, melancholy enthusiasm in poems”, as he put it in a letter to Johann Heinrich Voss .

In contrast to this melancholy elegy of sensitivity, Friedrich Schiller developed a distinction based on the philosophy of history in his definition of the elegiac in the treatise On Naive and Sentimental Poetry . The elegiac, just like the idyllic and the satirical, is not equated with the genre elegy (because further metric-formal criteria are necessary for this), but rather as a modern "mode of feeling" in which "the mourning comes from only one through the ideal aroused enthusiasm “should flow. The essential object of this enthusiasm is the original or ancient unity of people and gods, nature and culture; it is, so to speak, the prerequisite for that mourning, which in turn stems from the diagnosis of the loss of this unity in sentimental modernity . Schiller no longer understands the elegiac as a melancholy visualization of past happiness in the sense of Hölty or Thomas Abbts , but as a break between nature and ideal. There are even three literary genres under the sign of rupture: in satire the sentimental poet emphasizes the inadequacy of reality in relation to the ideal, in the idyll nature and ideal are presented as future reality, and as an elegiac the poet mourns over lost nature or about the inaccessibility of the ideal, which he also remembers elegiacally. Schiller's elegies such as The Ideal and Life or The Gods of Greece are an expression of this unbridgeable distance between ideal and reality; the same applies to Hölderlin's elegies such as bread and wine .

In contrast, this historical-philosophical perspective is missing in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's interpretation of the elegy, of which above all Römische Elegien (1790, published 1795), Das Wiedersehn (1793), Alexis and Dora (1796), Hermann and Dorothea (1796), Amyntas (1797) ), Euphrosyne (1797/98), The Metamorphosis of Plants (1798) and the late work Trilogy of Passions (1823/24). Instead, with Goethe the elegy lives on in its Roman, ie sensual-erotic form in the Roman elegies . The first great elegiac attempts by Goethe and Schiller illustrate this significant difference: here the erotic-sensual Roman elegies of Goethe, there the historical-philosophical reflection on the loss of the ancient world of gods in Schiller's Die Götter Greecees .

Rainer Maria Rilke's Duinese Elegies , which were written between 1912 and 1922, became more famous . Bertolt Brecht's later cycle of poems bears the title Buckower Elegien , without these poems being elegies in the actual sense.


In modern music, the elegy is not a formally bound composition, but has the character of a fantasy piece. In the genre of songs it is cultivated by Franz Schubert , Leonard Bernstein also uses it ( Elegy on the death of a dog ), an opera by Hans Werner Henze is entitled Elegy for young lovers .


The term elegy is also used in relation to Chinese literature , especially the Chuci elegies.

Elegance poet

In ancient Greece, poets of elegance are: Kallinos , Tyrtaios , Mimnermos , Solon , in Roman antiquity: Gallus , Catullus , Tibullus , Properz , Ovid , Martial , in German literature e.g. For example: Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock , Johann Wolfgang von Goethe , Friedrich Hölderlin , Friedrich Schiller , Rainer Maria Rilke , Annette von Droste-Hülshoff , Bertolt Brecht , Klabund .


  • Ewen Bowie: Elegy. I. Greek . In: Der Neue Pauly 3 (1997), Col. 969-973.
  • Friedrich Spoth: Elegy. II. Latin elegy. A. Beginnings and genus characteristics; B. Development of the Imperial Age; C. History of impact. In: Der Neue Pauly 3 (1997), Sp. 973-976.
  • Barbara Feichtinger: Elegy. A. Introduction; B. Middle Latin elegy; C. Neo-Latin elegy (Italy); D. French elegy; E. English elegy; F. German Elegy . In: Der Neue Pauly 13 (1999), Col. 943-946.
  • Benedikt Jeßing: Elegy . In: Gert Ueding (ed.): Historical dictionary of rhetoric . Darmstadt: WBG 1992ff., Vol. 10 (2011), Col. 266-274.
  • Friedrich Beissner : History of the German Elegy. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1941 (further editions 1961 and 1965).
  • Klaus Weissenberger: Forms of the elegy from Goethe to Celan . Bern / Munich 1969.
  • Burkhard Meyer-Sickendiek : The grief in the elegy , in: Ders., Affektpoetik. A cultural history of literary emotions , Würzburg 2005, pp. 115–146.
  • Daniel Frey: Biting tears. a study of elegy and epigram from the beginning to Bertolt Brecht and Peter Huchel , Würzburg 1995.
  • Niklas Holzberg : The Roman power of love. An introduction . Darmstadt 2001.
  • Thomas G. Rosenmeyer: Elegiac and Elegos . In: California Studies in Classical Antiquity , Volume 1 (1968), pp. 217-231.

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: Elegy  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. Denys L. Page: The elegiac distiches in Euripides' Andromache, in: The Greek Elegy, ed. by Gerhard Pohl, Darmstadt 1972, p. 393-421, here p. 394 f.
  2. Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty: Collected works and letters. Critical study edition, ed. by Walter Hettche, Göttingen 1998, p. 50.
  3. Burkhard Meyer-Sickendiek: Die Mourning in der Elegie, in: Ders., Affektpoetik. A cultural history of literary emotions, Würzburg 2005, pp. 115–146.
  4. Friedrich Schiller: About naive and sentimental poetry, in: Ders .: All works in 5 volumes. Volume 5: Stories Theoretical Writings, ed. by Gerhard Fricke and Herbert G. Göpfert, Munich 1980, p. 728.