Zero to Hero, a Guide - 9. Poetry Prompt 6 – Elegy
Poetry Prompt 6
Let’s write an Elegy!
We have studied how verse form relates to certain patterns, like line length, using end-of-line rhymes for emphasis and memorability, and stanza patterns like the Tanka, Haiku and Couplet.
We can build on that by practicing with the four-line structure of the Elegy, which is like a pair of couplets split up to be a-b-a-b in its rhymes.
The Elegy belongs to a group of lyric poetry including the Pastoral and the Eclogue. This form is ancient, and city-bound Hellenistic Greeks used to dream of getting back to nature through such popular pieces. While the other two forms promoted bucolic bliss, the Elegy spoke of loss – more often than not, of one handsome shepherd being taken by someone rich and powerful to 'the city,' and his equally handsome and lonely shepherd mate having to deal with the separation. In this sense Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis is an Elegy, as the goddess has to suffer the rather comic rebuff of the beautiful boy before ultimately losing him altogether.
With this, he breaketh from the sweet embrace
Of those fair arms which bound him to her breast,
And homeward through the dark laund runs apace;
Leaves Love upon her back deeply distressed.
Look, how a bright star shooteth from the sky,
So glides he in night from Venus' eye.
Later, continuing to run from the goddesses' lust-driven pursuit, the beautiful teen boy is gored and killed by a boar. So in this we come to how the Elegy has been most often used in English: a lament for a departed loved one. Even though it is usually thought of as a death song, good Elegies still retain the element of nature as a sub-theme.
For our purposes of studying how to write one, I will stick with examples from, without question, one the greatest same-sex love poems ever written (and one sadly few bother to read today). Tenneyson's In Memoriam contains the lines:
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
And the man he loved, Arthur Hallam dead at age only 22, must have been a remarkable soul, for the expanse of In Memoriam is as passionate and sweeping as its near contemporary poem, The Leaves of Grass. Tennyson deals with his loss by questioning everything – Christian hypocrisy against same-sex love, faith versus reason, love being stronger than doubt and hate, even Creationism versus Evolution. And ever in the background is nature and how it brings the poet back to the presence of his beloved. Take for example these strophes from No. 95:
By night we lingered on the lawn,
For underfoot the herb was dry;
And genial warmth; and o'er the sky
The silvery haze of summer drawn;
And calm that let the tapers burn
Unwavering: not a cricket chirped:
The brook alone far-off was heard,
And on the board a fluttering urn:
But when those others, one by one,
Withdrew themselves from me and night,
And in the house light after light
Went out, and I was all alone,
Then strangely on the silence broke
The silent-speaking words, and strange
Was love's dumb cry defying change
To test his worth; and strangely spoke.
So word by word, and line by line,
The dead man touched me from the past,
And all at once it seemed at last
His living soul was flashed on mine,
And mine in his was wound and whirled
About empyreal heights of thought,
And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world.
So, sucked from out the distant gloom
A breeze began to tremble o'er
The large leaves of the sycamore,
And fluctuate all the still perfume.
Here we can see what I mean when I say the rhyme pattern is like a pair of Couplets split up, and note that Tennyson chose to stick with a lyrical 8-syllable line length throughout. There is a grandeur to these lines, but I chose to show them first for how beautifully he weaves in the presence of both nature and the memory of the departed. But that does not always have to so blatant. Easier to follow are the four stanzas of No. 73:
So many worlds, so much to do,
So little done, such things to be,
How know I what had need of thee,
For thou wert strong as thou wert true?
The fame is quenched that I foresaw,
The head hath missed an earthly wreath:
I curse not nature, no, nor death;
For nothing is that errs from law.
We pass; the path that each man trod
Is dim, or will be dim, with weeds:
What frame is left for human deeds
In endless age? It rests with God.
O hollow wraith of drying fame,
Fade wholly, while the soul exults,
And self-infolds the large results
Of force that would have forged a name.
So here, I hope you noticed right away, Tennyson used the exact form and line pattern, but achieved something markedly different from No. 95. His anxiety almost beats with a heartbeat as we read his words, and 'nature' becomes thought of human nature and of how natural it is for two people to love one another.
The Prompt: write your own Elegy of at least 4 or 5 stanzas per poem. Imagine you are sitting by yourself in some personally significant natural spot. It could be in the woods, or on a mountaintop, or by a babbling brook – the place in nature where you feel connected to it. Then, imagining you are there, write at least one Elegy on the theme of 'Remember.' Keep the rhyme pattern a-b-b-a, use as many stanzas as you like, but maintain a consistent 8-syllable line. Play with it; your poem does not have to be about death or loss, just remembrance.
As final inspiration, here’s No. 86 from In Memoriam:
Sweet after showers, ambrosial air,
That rollest from the gorgeous gloom
Of evening over brake and bloom
And meadow, slowly breathing bare
The round of space, and rapt below
Through all the dewy-tasseled wood,
And shadowing down the horned flood
In ripples, fan my brows and blow
The fever from my cheek, and sigh
The full new life that feeds thy breath
Throughout my frame, till Doubt and Death,
Ill brethren, let the fancy fly
From belt to belt of crimson seas
On leagues of odor streaming far,
To where in yonder orient star
A hundred spirits whisper “Peace.”
Self-Review: Now that you have written an Elegy, I ask you to perform a self-check against the following set of questions. If you answer ‘Yes’ to one or more of them, and this leads to feelings of dissatisfaction with your results, turn to the appendix List of Random Prompt Ideas and choose one to try the Elegy challenge again. Check this list of questions with your second attempt and whittle those ‘Yes’s down to a comfortable level before going on to the Haiku prompt challenge.
Ask yourself DID I:
- Miss an opportunity to pull in natural references?
- Fail to make my Elegy personal or heartfelt?
- Fall short or go over on the syllable counts?
- Make hard stops at the end of each line?
- Treat the poem as a bunch of random lines and not a stanza?
- Fail to make my Elegy unified and flowing?
- Sacrifice basic grammar to achieve syllable count?
Remember, this course is designed to build knowledge and confidence step by step, so please feel comfortable with Elegy before you proceed.
 The two young shepherds who were household names in ancient and Renaissance times were Corydon and Alexis. They were as well known a couple as Romeo and Juliet is to us and the story of how their pure love and passionate devotion to one another was tested by the glitz and fakeness of hypocrisy was written about time and time again. Marlow's famous lines of "Come live with me and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove" is Corydon speaking to his Alexis. (See Chapter 3 of Bruce R. Smith's 1991 literary survey of same-sex love in Shakespeare's England)
 Laund = a grassy meadow
 The 'his' of this line and the line above are the originals. Tennyson's son later systematically went through the poem and edited parts he felt were too 'gay.' Thus in this line he craftily added a 't' to make a nonsensical 'this': "And mine in this was wound". Unfortunately this was one of his favorite ways to deface the manuscript. Sometimes, as in the case of "His living soul was flashed on mine," he was forced to cross out his father's words and simply write something obscuring above it; here he altered it to read: "The living soul was flashed on mine," which again makes no sense to a reader. (See In Memoriam, edited by Robert H. Ross, 1973 New York)
Walt Whitman's editor for the Leaves of Grass insisted he add qualifiers like "him and her," and "he and she" in his erotic poetry where the poet only wrote "him" and "he." Later on his dutiful students defaced his manuscripts after the master's death to reflect the edited print versions of the poem. (See Love Stories, by Jonathan Ned Katz, 2001 Chicago)
Emily Dickinson likewise had her manuscripts rather brutally altered by her editor and niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi. As Keith Stern writes: "Though we know little about Dickinson's sexual life, we can be certain about the passions of her sexual orientation. In 1852 she wrote a love letter to her friend Susan Gilbert that read in part, 'Susie, forgive me darling, for every word I say – my heart is full of you, none other than you in my thoughts.' Her love for Gilbert inspired many of her poems. In addition to altering Dickinson's rhymes and punctuation, early editors replaced Gilbert's name in many of the love poems that were written to her. Scissors and erasers were taken both to poems and correspondence, turning 'her' to 'him,' and erasing the 's' in front of 'she.'" (ps. 139-140, Queers in History, 2009 Dallas)
It is a shame that LGBT and Questioning youth are still systematically kept from knowing the extent of Gay arts and letters that exists all around them. Editing Gay people out of their own history should end. Take for example In Memoriam: if you look right now online, the “official” sites (like the current owner of the manuscript, the British Museum’s page on the poem), you will not even see the word “love.” Incredibly, the straight majority will not even allow the public acknowledgement of it as a love poem, written by Tennyson to the man he loved and lost. They pronounce the men “friends,” and no more.
You probably have a crazy and hectic schedule and find it hard to keep up with everything going on. We get it, because we feel it too. Signing up here is a great way to keep in touch and find something relaxing to read when you get a few moments to spare.
Create an account or sign in to comment
You need to be a member in order to leave a comment
Create an account
Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!Register a new account
Already have an account? Sign in here.Sign In Now