elegaic poetry


elegaic poetry
   By modern definition, an elegy is a poetic meditation on mortality occasioned by the death of an individual close to or important to the poet, such as Milton’s Lycidas or Tennyson’s In Memoriam. In classical Greek or Latin, however, the term elegy referred only to a particular verse form that naturally lent itself to a serious of somber mood. Thus in classical times it came to refer to almost any grave or solemn personal meditation in lyric form. It is in this more general sense that the term elegiac is used to describe the mood of a collection of OLD ENGLISH poems found chiefly in The EXETER BOOK, including particularly The WANDERER, The SEAFARER, The WIFE’S LAMENT, and The RUIN.
   Most often in these poems, the somber meditative mood is occasioned by exile or loneliness. The speaker may be a wraecca, or wandering exile, who cannot participate in the communal life of the mead hall, where the unity of the tribe under the lord was celebrated. A man without a lord in Germanic society was outside the sphere of normal human activity, and could only feel lonely, isolated, and vulnerable. Speakers in Old English elegaic poems meditate upon the sense of loss this condition of exile brings. Sometimes the speaker’s vision expands to include a meditation upon the transient nature of the world in general. The emotional suffering occasioned by this sense of loss is sometimes relieved in the elegy by some sort of consolation, usually the Christian consolation that contrasts the permanence of heavenly eternity with the transience of the physical world.
   Aside from the strong sense of pain and loss that these poems share, they are also characterized by difficulty of language and structure. These difficulties have often led to differences of opinion concerning the interpretation of these poems. A significant question, for example, is whether the Christian consolations that can be found at the ends of certain elegies are truly part of the poems or are scribal interpolations. But to take The Wanderer as perhaps the most complete example of an Old English elegy, one can see the progression from personal loss to universal loss to final consolation. It is difficult to believe this is not the poet’s intent.
   Bibliography
   ■ Green,Martin, ed. The Old English Elegies: New Essays in Criticism. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983.
   ■ Klinck,Anne.“The Old English Elegy as a Genre,” English Studies in Canada 10, no. 2 (1984): 129–140.
   ■ Mora, María José. “The Invention of the Old English Elegy,” English Studies 76, no. 2 (1995): 129–139.
   ■ Morgan, Gwendolyn. “Essential Loss: Christianity and Alienation in the Anglo-Saxon Elegies,” Geardagum: Essays on Old and Middle English Literature 11 (1990): 15–33.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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