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Poems for Funerals

The elegy–the traditional poem for mourning–began in ancient Greece as a sad song lamenting love and death, often accompanied by a flute and written in a specific meter. The form, however, moved away from its fixed metrical roots when it was adopted by Renaissance poets such as Ben Jonson, Alexander Pope, and John Donne. These writers made a distinction between a proper elegy–which expresses sorrow and a search for consolation–and “elegiac” poetry that meditates on loss, grief, death, and mortality in a variety of verse forms, such as the ode, epitaph, and eulogy. For example, Donne famously confronted death when he wrote the elegiac:

Death, be not proud though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

Shakespeare, of course, wrote a great deal about “what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,” and at about the same time John Milton wrote his famous “Lycidas,” which appeared in a collection of elegies commemorating the death of a Cambridge collegemate. William Wordsworth wrote poems in the elegiac mode, as did Lord Alfred Tennyson, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats, and Thomas Hardy in the nineteenth century. The form was adopted and transformed again in the twentieth century by poets such as W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg, who wrote the famous elegy for his mother “Kaddish,” which begins …..

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