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The elegy has its roots in ancient Greece. The term was at one time applied to a wide range of subjects both grave and gay. It included war songs, love poems, political verses, lamentations for the dead and so on.

It was written in a specific elegiac measure. The measure contained a couplet: the first line a dactylic hexameter and the second a dactylic pentameter. A dactyl is a disyllabic foot with a long syllable followed by two short syllables. Any poem written in this measure irrespective of subject matter was considered an elegy.

The English elegy, however takes its name from its subject matter and not from its form. The theme is mournful or meditative. It is mostly a lamentation for the dead. It is written as a tribute to something loved and lost. As a rule it is less spontaneous than the lyric.

During the Renaissance a new kind of elegy entered English poetry. It is the pastoral elegy. A shepherd laments over the loss of his companion. The scene is set in rural life. Milton's Lycia's and Arnold's Thyrsus and Shelley's Adonis are pastoral elegies. Lycia's is an elegy on the death of Milton's 'learned friend', Edward King.

The poet speaks as if he were a shepherd lamenting the loss of a fellow shepherd. The rural scenes woven into the theme make it a pastoral elegy. In Thyrsus Arnold mourns the death of his fried, Arthur Hugh Clough. There is a 'magnificent address to the cuckoo':

Too quick despaired, wherefore wilt thou go?

Soon will the high Midsummer pumps come on?

Soon will the musk-carnations break and swell,

Soon shall we have gold-dusted snap dragon,

Sweet-William with his homely cottage smell,

And stocks in fragrant blow;

Roses that down the alleys shine afar

And open, jasmine muffled lattices,

And groups under the dreaming garden trees,

And the full moon, and the white evening star.

There is a beautiful rural scene with its wealth of imagery. Arnold presents seductively the sights and sounds of the country-side in the poem. Beautiful things in nature perish, but come back to birth soon. There is no need to lament over death, which presupposes birth.

The English elegy draws its inspiration from the dead. The poet reflects on the nature of death, pays tributes to the dead friend, praises his noble character and prays for the departed soul.

Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard reflects on death, which awaits the humble and the mighty alike. Therefore, there is no need to look down upon the rustics, who cannot distinguish themselves because of their handicaps. They die un honored and unsung though they are no way inferior to their more sophisticated counterparts.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene

The dark unfathomed clouds of ocean bear:

Full many a flower is horn to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

The elegy of Gray is abundant in rich imagery and heightened sentiments. Shelley's Adonis, Tennyson's In Memoriam, Arnold's Rugby Chapel and Yeats' In Memory of Major Robber Gregory mourn over the death of a loved person. In Rugby Chapel Arnold mourns the death of his father, Thomas Arnold. He visits the grave fifteen years after the death of his father. He compares his father to the people of his times. He is compared with a beacon of hope which leads people to the city of God. English elegy, thus, is a lamentation for the dead.