For a long time I was puzzled by the difference between the two words, elegy and eulogy. My confusion was not simply due to their obvious visual and aural similarities. My puzzlement was increased by their use in similar contexts (e.g. death). Even worse, they are sometimes (mis)used interchangeably.
If you are confused, let me clarify the matter—the words have significantly different definitions. The fact they are both three syllables and share four letters, is simply coincidence. Both are frequently written, but only eulogies are intended to be delivered as an oration.
A eulogy (ˈyü-lə-jē) is a message of commendation and praise, typically offered in honor of someone who has died. (It originates from the Greek word eulogia which means praise.)
An elegy (ˈe-lə-jē) is a poem, or possibly a song, with a melancholy tone. It can, but does not have to, be about someone who is deceased. (It finds its origin in elegos, the Greek word for a song of mourning.)
Thus, even when both eulogies and elegies are offered in response to the same person’s passing, they remain quite distinct from one another. The eulogy focuses on praise, and is positive in tone. The elegy focuses on sorrow and is like a lamentation.
As a young man, C.S. Lewis wrote to his father about the nature of exaggeration often found in eulogies.
I was sorry to see the other day news of our friend Heineman’s sudden death. The papers have been so covering him with eulogy since he went that I begin to feel glad I met him, if only for once—Vergilium vidi tantum! [“I have seen the great Virgil!” (Ovid, Tristia)]
In this case however I think the virtues are not wholly of the tombstone nature: a great publisher is really something more than a mere machine for making money: he has opportunities for doing things for the best of motives, and if one looks round most of our English houses, I think he avails himself of them as well as anyone can expect. I always put up a fight for the tribe of publishers here where so many young men with manuscripts have nothing too bad to say of them.
The close companionship of the Inklings meant that they took one another’s death quite hard. C.S. Lewis’ brother Warren wrote a moving eulogy when Charles Williams passed. In it he said, “the blackout has fallen, and the Inklings can never be the same again.”
The talented Christian writer, Dorothy Sayers, shared a dynamic friendship with C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote a heartfelt eulogy for her when she died in 1957. Her son wrote back thanking him for the warm and uplifting gift.
Lewis was unable to present it in person at the funeral, so his eulogy was read to the congregation by the Lord Bishop of Chichester. It is quite substantial and because Sayers’ son preserved a copy, it is now preserved in the essay collection On Stories. It is entitled “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers,” panegyric being another word for publicly rendered praise. At the conclusion of the sensitive tribute, Lewis praises her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Unfortunately, Sayers died before completing the final section of the work. After complimenting her work on the initial section, the Inferno, he concludes:
. . . when I came to the Purgatorio, a little miracle seemed to be happening. She had risen, just as Dante himself rose in his second part: growing richer, more liquid, more elevated. Then first I began to have great hopes of her Paradiso. Would she go on rising? Was it possible? Dared we hope?
Well. She died instead; went, as one may in all humility hope, to learn more of Heaven than even the Paradiso could tell her. For all she did and was, for delight and instruction, for her militant loyalty as a friend, for courage and honesty, for the richly feminine qualities which showed through a port and manner superficially masculine and even gleefully ogreish—let us thank the Author who invented her.
As a literary historian, C.S. Lewis was extremely familiar with elegies. In an essay, “Donne and Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century,” he critically analyzes that author’s elegies. (You can download the complete collection of Donne’s poems in two volumes here: 1 — 2.)
In another essay, “Shelley, Dryden, and Mr. Eliot,” Lewis praises Shelley’s “Witch of Atlas,” and moves on to an interesting critique of Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats.
If Shelley had written only such poems he would have shown his genius: his artistry, the discipline and power of obedience which makes genius universal, are better shown elsewhere. Adonais naturally occurs to the mind, for here we see Shelley fruitfully submitting to the conventions of a well-established form.
It has all the traditional features of the elegy—the opening dirge, the processional allegory, and the concluding consolation. There is one bad error of taste. The Muse, lamenting Adonais, is made to lament her own immortality,
I would give All that I am to be as thou now art!
But I am chained to Time, and cannot thence depart! (xxvi)
This is to make a goddess speak like a new-made human widow, and to dash the public solemnity of elegy with the violent passions of a personal lyric. How much more fitting are the words of the Roman poet:
Immortales mortales si foret fas flere
Flerent divae Camenae Naevium poetam.
[Gnaeus Naevius (c. 270-199 BC) was a Roman poet who composed this modest epitaph for his tomb:
If it would be lawful for immortals to weep for mortals,
the divine Muses would weep for the poet Naevius.]
A Special Bonus
For readers who have continued to this point, I have a special treat. It is a satirical elegy written by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who was a popular English writer, and staunch defender of Christianity (particularly of the Roman Catholic flavor).
This excellent column describes the influence Chesterton had on the Inklings, especially Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Chesterton often launched his work from current events or twists on common knowledge, creatively manipulating it to provide new insights. He did this very thing with the following, famous elegy.
In 1751, English poet Thomas Gray wrote “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” It grew in fame, and was memorized by many English schoolchildren. It consists of more than thirty stanzas. The link offers the entire poem, but eight lines will suffice to illustrate for our purpose here.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
by Thomas Gray
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.
And here we close with Chesterton’s brief version, intentionally bearing the same title. It is both somber (in the first two sincere stanzas) and scathing (in the last verse). I am certain citizens of many nations would nod in agreement if this elegy was applied to their own countries.
Elegy in a Country Churchyard
by G.K. Chesterton
The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And birds and bees of England
About the cross can roam.
But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.
And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England
They have no graves as yet.