How to Write an Elegy for Beginners: Step-By-Step

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As you prepare to write an elegy for someone who passed away, stop for a moment and consider if you meant to look up instructions on how to write an elegy or a eulogy. These two words are often confused. 

ump ahead to these sections:

An elegy is a sad poem or song about someone who died. A eulogy is a speech that is usually given at someone’s funeral, praising that individual’s life and accomplishments.

Do you still want instructions on how to write an elegy? If so, keep reading and kudos to you. Few people attempt to express their feelings of grief and sorrow creatively. Keep reading to receive some help with your emotional project.

Step 1: Read Some Examples of Elegies

Before you attempt to do something that you have never done before, it’s a good idea to seek advice and examples from a professional. That’s why cooking shows and YouTube “how-to” videos are so popular. It’s easier to do something once you’ve seen it done.

Writing is no different. If you want to write a poem or music to honor someone you lost, read some elegies written by professionals. Here are some to consider.

“On My First Sonne” by Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson wrote at the same time as William Shakespeare. This poem is about the death of Johnson’s eldest son, who died when he was seven. It is incredibly poignant and is an excellent example of someone using poetry to express emotions.

“In Memoriam A.H.H.” by Lord Alfred Tennyson

When you look up this poem, you will see that Tennyson had a lot to say about his dear friend who died.

This poem has the often-quoted line, “tis better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.”

“O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman wrote “O Captain! My Captain!” upon hearing about the death of Abraham Lincoln. You will notice that he compares Lincoln to the captain of a ship instead of referring to him as president. Feel free to use such imagery in your poem.

“A Part Song” by Denise Riley

We don’t want you to think that elegies are a dying art. They are used by people today to work through difficult emotions. Denise Riley, a modern poet, wrote “A Part Song” after losing her adult son.

» MORE: How do you host a virtual funeral? Start here

 

Step 2: Choose a Format

Are you a fan of poetry? Do you enjoy poems that have regular rhyme and rhythm, such as Elizabethan sonnets? Or do you prefer narrative poetry that tells a story? Maybe you like Japanese haiku. Some like the free verse associated with Walt Whitman.

An elegy, or any funeral poem, can be written in any format, such as a ballad, ode, or epic. Elegies don’t have to be written in any specific form at all. So how do you choose what type of poem to write? 

Think about your personal preference. Before you begin writing your elegy, consider the examples you read and the poetry you prefer. If you like working with a particular rhyme scheme or rhythm, this will give you a place to begin. 

Think about your poem’s message. Do you want to tell a story about your loved one who died? Or do you want to express the emotions you’re feeling? Your message may help you choose the right format for your elegy. 

Think about the type of relationship you had with the deceased. An elegy written to a grandparent may have a more formal tone and rigid rhyme scheme compared with an elegy written for a spouse. 

Think about whether or not you are putting your words to music. If you choose to write a song from your elegy, you may need to work under the rhythm and cadence of the tune.

Step 3: Brainstorm Your Message

Are you staring at the flashing cursor on your computer screen or the empty piece of paper in front of you? Some people find it intimidating to write poetry, even if they feel they need the outlet to express pent-up emotions. 

If you are suffering from writer’s block, consider going for a walk. Leave your earbuds at home. Think about the person you lost. Let words, phrases, and emotions seep into your subconscious. 

As soon as you return to your computer or blank piece of paper, write down some words or phrases that came to you. 

Still struggling? Write a list of adjectives that you would use to describe your loved one. Write down snippets of stories that show why those descriptive words were chosen.

You may also consider writing an epitaph for the deceased. Even though your poem may be as long as you wish, thinking about what you would write if you only had a limited amount of space may help you get to the essence of the person faster.

The most important thing in this part of the process is to get words on paper. Don’t worry if they’re perfect. 

Step 4: Write, Edit, and Rewrite

You’ve chosen your format based on your personal preferences and your poem’s message. You’ve thought about your relationship with the deceased. Now it is time to write. 

Tell what was unique about the person you lost. Describe how losing that person makes you feel. Consider adding consoling words, similar to Tennyson’s famous example from above. Most elegies have a sad tone, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share a happy memory.

Once you have a draft of a poem, let it sit awhile. Most professional writers complete a series of rewrites and edits before they’re happy with their work. Take a clue from your high school English teacher: there’s no such thing as writing. There’s only good rewriting.

Have a few people read your work and ask for feedback. You may want to seek advice from online poetry communities. Ask others who knew the person to give feedback as well. Take the advice you like and leave the rest. Even if others have an idea for a stronger verb or another story to include, you’re the poet. You decide how the poem reads in the end.

Elegy Examples

Don’t feel intimidated about writing an elegy. Anyone can do it. Here are some samples written by amateur poets to get you started. 

“To My Dear Angel” by John F. Connor

To my dear angel in heaven,
I just want to let you know
That you are always in my thoughts
And that I love you so.

This poet uses 4-lined stanzas and a specific rhyming pattern. This poet is expressing his emotions without giving any specific details regarding the person who died. 

“Our Lives Go On” by Anonymous

Our lives go on without you
But nothing is the same.
We have to hide our heartache
When someone speaks your name.

Here’s another example of a four-stanza poem with a particular rhyme scheme. If you have lost someone close to you, you’re probably familiar with the heartache described in this poem.

“I Am Grateful For You” by Anonymous

I am grateful for the day we met 
even though you couldn’t stay.

I am grateful for the memories 
Even when they make me cry.

I am grateful for the loved shared
Even though now at a distance.

I am grateful for the time we had
Even though it was too short.

This non-rhyming poem is written with two-lined stanzas. Each stanza begins with the words, “I am grateful.” You may consider choosing a similar format for your elegy.

“The Long Lines in the Grain Truck” by Anonymous

When I think of you,
I think of white, soft forearms scarred with a vaccine from decades before
Those arms controlling several tons of truck and grain.
Soft but strong. 

This poem is written in free verse. It tells of a specific memory instead of discussing emotions. 

“Follow Me” by Anonymous

We couldn’t hear her because of the thunder and the blasting rock rhythms and loud horns.
All we could see was her blonde bob as she danced toward the stage.
Others had sought shelter from the downpour, but she sought an opportunity to have closer seats.
We followed, and we will follow.

This is another poem written in free verse. Elegies don’t have to have a formal, rigid format.

Expressing Your Emotions

You’ve seen some examples of elegies written by published poets and amateurs. You have the steps to write your own elegy. Now, all you need to do is sit down and do it.

Writing can be a cathartic experience. It helps you work through fear, anxiety, sorrow, and loss. You can share your writing with others by speaking at your loved one’s funeral, or you can write something that no one else will ever see.

Take comfort in the process. 

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