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An elegy is a poetic response to the death of a greatly loved person. The typical elegy contains a lament and a celebration of the dead person and ends with the poet's finding consolation in the contemplation of something that is considered to be more important than the life or death of any one person.

Most elegies are written by men about men and have a latent tone and a blurring of the line between friendship and love. The homoeroticism of an elegy can often be seen in the way in which the poet departs from the traditional formulas.

The Classical Sources

The homoeroticism of the elegy is, in part, due to its classical sources. The elegiac tradition derives from classical laments such as Bion's "Lament for Adonis" and Theocritus' "first Idyll" in Greek, and Virgil's "Fifth Eclogue" in Latin. These poems, and the others like them, concern the deaths of beautiful young men who--like Virgil's Daphnis--are often portrayed as shepherds from the mythical land of Arcadia. Some of these poems are openly homoerotic since, within certain limits, the classical world permitted male homosexuality.

English and American Elegies

The most famous English elegies were written approximately between 1500 and 1900, when homosexual acts were forbidden by the law and by the church. Nevertheless, laws against homosexual activity were selectively enforced: It seems that only sexual behavior that was seen as socially disruptive was likely to be punished.

Furthermore, the distinction between friendship and romantic love--which became important in the nineteenth century--appears often to have been impossible to make. There is usually no way to declare with certainty that a relationship between men was or was not sexual.

The elegy, employing as it does a vocabulary and a form that any reader of classical poetry would recognize as connected to homoeroticism, tends to move back and forth on a continuum between love and friendship.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

Among the earliest English elegies are those by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. In the decade ending in 1547, Surrey wrote elegies for his friend and brother-in-law the Duke of Richmond, his cousin and squire Thomas Clere, and the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Surrey's elegies for Richmond--"So crewell prison" and "When Windesor walles"--are particularly interesting. Although Surrey does not use the classical techniques or the Arcadian setting, he writes of his life with the dead man in a style that recalls his own love poetry and earlier love poetry in English. It is impossible to place the relationship between the two men on only one side of the imaginary line between love and friendship.

John Milton

The elegies of John Milton, written about a century after Surrey's, are much more consciously classical. Milton's "Lycidas," with its use of classical names and settings, is very close in many respects to Virgil and Theocritus.

The lesser-known "Epitaphium Damonis," which Milton wrote in Latin about his friend Charles Diodati, is more interesting than "Lycidas," considered strictly as an elegy. In "Epitaphium Damonis," Milton uses Virgil's life as well as his techniques. Milton wants, like Virgil, to move from pastoral poetry (like the elegy) to epic poetry, and in fact, the idea of composing an epic is Milton's consolation for Diodati's death. Pastoral poetry is seen as immature, whereas epic poetry is seen as mature.

Elegiac poets often make a tacit comparison between poetry and human relationships, in which same-sex bonds are linked to adolescence and youth must give way to marriage and reproduction, which are linked to adulthood. Often, indeed, the idea of reproduction--usually expressed as the return of spring--is the consolation.

In "Epitaphium Damonis," however, Milton does not mention his own marriage. Instead, he ends the poem by saying that Diodati will be rewarded for his earthly chastity with a marriage in heaven. This can be read as a defense against an anticipated accusation, especially since the final lines of the poem are a strongly erotic description of the heavenly marriage.

The sexuality of this description represents the return of what has been repressed in this and other elegies. Here, as elsewhere in Milton's poetry, we see the poet dramatizing sexual temptation and using religion to defeat that temptation. What is remarkable here is that Milton simultaneously resists and gives in to the forbidden pleasures of sexuality.

In many elegies, the inevitability of the seasonal cycle is used to make the move from a homosexual to a heterosexual bond seem natural, so although love between a man and a woman can be connected to this cycle, a love between men or between women must exist outside it. This kind of love can be written only when it has been ended by death. After making this acknowledgment, the poet can move on to marriage.

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Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote In Memoriam (1850), the most famous elegy of the nineteenth century.
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