Monday, January 29th, 2018...9:38 pmAnnalee

“Elegy” in Music

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Definition of “elegy” in the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms:

“Elegy. An elaborately formal *lyrics poem lamenting the death of a friend of a public figure, or reflecting seriously on a solemn subject. In Greek and Latin verse, the term referred to the *metre of a poem (alternating in dactylic *hexameters and *pentameters in couplets known as elegiac *distichs), not to its mood or content: love poems were often included. Likewise, John Donne applied the term to his amorous and satirical poems in *heroic couplets. But since Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ (1637), the term in English has usually denoted a *lament (although Milton called his poem a ‘monody’), while the adjective ‘elegiac’ has come to refer to the mournful mood of such poems. Two important English elegies that follow Milton in using *pastoral conventions are Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ (1821) on the death of Keats, and Arnold’s ‘Thyrsis’ (1867). This tradition of the pastoral elegy, derived from Greek poems by Theocritus and other Sicilian poets in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, evolved a very elaborate series of *conventions by which the dead friend is represented as a shepherd mourned by the natural world; pastoral elegies usually include many mythological figures such as the nymphs who are supposed to have guarded the dead shepherd, and the *muses invoked by the elegist. Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850) is a long series of elegiac verses (in the modern sense) on his friend Arthur Hallam, while Whitman’s ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ friend; Auden’s ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ (1939) does the same. In a broader sense, an elegy may be a poem of melancholy reflection upon life’s transience or its sorrows, as in Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1751), or in Rilke’s Duino Elegies (1912-22). The elegiac stanza is a *quatrain of iambic pentameters rhyming abab, named after its use in Gray’s elegy.”

The song I chose to represent elegy is “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” from the musical Les Miserables. To give some background: all of Marius’s friends have died fighting at the barricade and he was injured, but somehow survived and has returned all alone to where his friends used to meet and is understandably mournful. “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” is an elegy because Marius is mourning and grieving his friends’ deaths as he recalls how they used to gather here and talk about their revolution. He can’t seem to quite cope with the fact that he somehow survived and every one of them died. Marius is lamenting his dead friends thru this song exactly as an elegy does. In fact, songs are typically poems that are set to music and therefore, “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” is an elegy put to music. There is an evident mournful and somber mood to this song as he notices that every chair is empty, excluding his, and how his “friends will sing no more” because they’re gone. There’s evident regret as Marius cannot answer their haunting question of what their sacrifice was for.

When I had first heard this song, it’s apparent that it’s a song full of grief and there’s an immediate tone shift from the scene before in which the students are frantically firing back at the French army. This song almost follows the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Marius is in denial when he thinks he can see the “phantom faces” of his friends in the window as if they are still alive and with him. As the song builds, Marius becomes more upset and more angry asking why he was allowed to survive. This also connects to the bargaining aspect as he thinks that either he should be among the dead with them or they should be alive and well with him. Marius is quite depressed as he claims “there’s a grief that can’t be spoken” and how he is no longer sure of what their sacrifice was for in the first place. As the song comes to a close, Marius is greeted by Cosette and accepts that he is the only one that remains. The grief and mourning of his friends makes this song a perfect example of an elegy.

“Empty Chairs At Empty Tables”

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken,

There’s a pain goes on and on.

Empty chairs at empty tables,

Now my friends are dead and gone.


Here they talked of revolution,

Here it was they lit the flame,

Here they sang about tomorrow,

And tomorrow never came.


From the table in the corner,

They could see a world reborn,

And they rose with voices ringing,

And I can hear them now

The very words that they had sung

Became their last communion

On this lonely barricade, at dawn.


Oh my friends, my friends forgive me

That I live and you are gone

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken,

There’s a pain goes on and on


Phantom faces at the windows

Phantom shadows on the floor,

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will meet no more.


Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me

What your sacrifice was for

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will sing no more.


Lyrics cited:



  • While reading your post about what an elegy is and the song that you chose, it reminded me of the musical Hamilton. I feel like both “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” and Hamilton are tragic not only because of the deaths they detail, but also because of the rise and fall of hero-like people. The tragedy of fighting for a cause you’ll never get to see. In Hamilton, there are beautiful lines describing this: “Legacy, what is a legacy?
    It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
    I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
    America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
    You let me make a difference, a place where even orphan immigrants
    Can leave their fingerprints and rise up
    I’m running out of time, I’m running, and my time’s up
    Wise up, eyes up
    I catch a glimpse of the other side
    Lawrence leads a soldiers’ chorus on the other side
    My son is on the other side
    He’s with my mother on the other side
    Washington is watching from the other side
    Teach me how to say goodbye
    Rise up, rise up, rise up, Eliza!”
    These lines are from the song “The World Was Wide Enough”, which is the last song of the play. It is an elegy to Hamilton and to all of the others who died for a greater future that they would not be able to experience for themselves.

  •   Professor Seiler
    February 5th, 2018 at 9:04 pm

    Annalee–great start to the blog! You and Victoria, inspired by your post, are both alert to the theatrical and political potential of elegy. In your example, as you note, the elegy for specific lost “friends” also doubles as a call to the revolutionary cause for which they died, yes?

  • I guess it isn’t surprising that Elegy sounds so much like Eulogy, and I think your choice of song is really spot on. Les Mis is a musical filled with death and in this moment the audience is looking for some kind of closure, maybe an explanation for why it had to be this way, and that seems to be the purpose of an elegy. It feels cathartic but also sensitive to the subject matter. Trying to find this balance between outright mourning, and the need to face the aftermath.
    Musical theater is definitely a place where that kind of lyrical expression of feeling can be found. I think also in pop music you find a lot of music dedicated to family and friends, an elegy becomes a way to pay homage and show respect for their lives, but also work through the speakers need to move forward.

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