Pastoral elegy: A serious formal poem in which a poet grieves the loss of a dead friend (often another poet). Composed in an elevated, dignified style, pastoral elegy, as its name implies, combines the forms and traditions of elegy with those of pastoral, specifically pastoral eclogue. In this type of elegy, the poet-mourner figures himself and the individual mourned as shepherds who have lived their lives in a simple, rural setting, tending their flocks. The dead shepherd is traditionally given a Greek name in recognition of the fact that the earliest examples of this genre were written in ancient Greece. The third-century B.C. Greek poet Theocritus is usually credited with creating the form, an early example of which is Moschus’s “Lament for Bion” (c. 150 B.C.). The genre became so popular in Europe at various points during the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries that it has become common for any type of elegy on another poet to contain pastoral elements.
The pastoral elegy is highly conventional, generally opening with an invocation that is followed by a statement of the poet’s great grief and a subsequent description of a procession of mourners. (In addition to people and supernatural beings, this procession may include Nature, plants and animals, and even things to which the dead poet gave imaginative existence. For instance, in “Adonais” , Percy Bysshe Shelley’s elegy for John Keats, the procession includes “All he had loved and moulded into thought.”) The pastoral elegy also usually involves a discussion of fate, or some similarly philosophical topic, and, ultimately, a statement by the speaking poet to the effect that all is well and has turned out as it should. (In Christian elegies, such statements imply or explicitly involve affirmations of belief in an afterlife.) Expressions of bewilderment, invectives against death, belief in immortality, arrangements of flowers, and the pathetic fallacy are also conventional elements of the pastoral elegy.
FURTHER EXAMPLES: John Milton’s “Lycidas” (1638) (for Edward King), Matthew Arnold’s “Thyrsis” (1866) (for Arthur Hugh Clough).