An Elegy for the Self

The elegy is an elastic form. If we define it broadly, it can be any melancholy contemplation, though it is chiefly associated with a lamentation for the dead.

You could write an elegy for the lost hour while you slept last night, for instance. The hour Congress sacrifices each spring like Mayan chieftains of old giving up some poor, innocent youth to the God of Time.

But elegies to Eastern Standard Time’s lost hour would be too tongue-in-cheek for an elegy. As a rule, an elegy is serious in tone and meaning. As an example, let’s look at Linda Pastan’s short and simple poem, “Elegy,” which uses dogwoods as a metaphor for something larger (and it doesn’t get any larger than the concept of mortality).


by Linda Pastan

Our final dogwood leans
over the forest floor

offering berries
to the birds, the squirrels.

It’s a relic
of the days when dogwoods

flourished—creamy lace in April,
spilled milk in May—

their beauty delicate
but commonplace.

When I took for granted
that the world would remain

as it was, and I
would remain with it.


Seven simple couplets, with the “turn” occurring in stanza #6, where Pastan leaves discussion of the old dogwood and turns to contemplate her own mortal coil, which the reader can’t help but think once “flourished” with a “beauty delicate / but commonplace.”

The older self, like the last warrior — a dogwood leaning “over the forest floor” and, we can infer, under the slings and arrows of the decades — no longer takes life for granted. That assumption was the beautiful sin of a younger self, a girl who assumed “that the world would remain / as it was, and I / would remain with it.”

Philosophically, it’s always interesting how the “self” — or, if you prefer, a “person” — is the same yet quite different over time. The paradox of 7-year-old me vs. 70-year-old me allows poets to look through a glass darkly, as the Bible would have it, and ruminate in the form of an elegy for the self.  Ruminate and rue not only lost hours, but lost days. Ones where a version of one’s “self” is already dead and gone and worthy of a nostalgic elegy.