Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,Of course, there are also ways to turn the elegy, which is so recognizable, into something more satirical as Gray does with this ode (where we get the phrase "All that glitters is not gold"):
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault
If Memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,Step One
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.
For this exercise, we are going to focus on a relationship. Choose a moment you regret in any relationship. A time when you said something hurtful. Maybe when someone hurt you. Maybe you didn't say the right thing or you said the completely wrong thing. Take this moment and just write all of the feelings you have when you think about that moment - the feelings might be anger or resentment or indignation.
Got 'em? Good. These are the words you may absolutely not use in this exercise. Your job is to look at those words and think of concrete images and scenes that convey their meaning. For example, maybe "angry" means "a door slamming" or "a pot roast being shoved down a disposal" (an image I cribbed from a particularly neat movie called All Over the Guy). Take a look at how fantastically Robert Hayden says "I regret" in his poem "Those Winter Sundays":
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
Poets have to work at "saying by showing" - we use small moments, scenes to say words like love, anger, fear, etc. I know this sounds cliché, but it is absolutely true. Still, it's easier said than done. Once you have your list of images, let's try to apply a few of them to a specific form...
Step Two: The Sapphic Stanza
The sapphic stanza is a perfect form to use for an elegy because the rhythm of the lines creates a falling sound. The form is loosely related to the Greek poet Sappho. The form is composed of three sapphic lines, which look like this line from Kipling's "The Craftsman":
Once, after long-drawn revel at The Mermaid
/ - / - / - - / - / -
Joined by a shorter line called an adonic. Here's a model of the whole form (remember, there's no rhyme pattern);
Take a look at the concrete images you created in Step One, then decide which one will work for your elegy. Remember the initial relationship you started with and use the sapphic stanza to keep you on track, make your word choice economical. If you want an example of what the sapphic stanza looks like in an extended form, here's a portion of Isaac Watts' "The Day of Judgment":/ - / - / - - / - / -/ - / - / - - / - / -
/ - / - / - - / - / -
/ - - / -
Such shall the noise be and the wild disorder,
(If things eternal may be like these earthly)
Such the dire terror, when the great Archangel
Shakes the creation,
Tears the strong pillars of the vault of heaven,
Breaks up old marble, the repose of princes;
See the graves open, and the bones arising,
Flames all around 'em!