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The Elegiac Tradition. When modern literary critics speak of “elegy” or “elegiac,” they generally have in mind a type of poetry characterized by a reflective mood and, often, topics of sadness or mourning. This is quite a different notion from the ancient concept of elegy, which was, first and foremost, a purely metrical designation: elegy was poetry written in elegiac couplets, consisting of a line of hexameter verse (like the meter of Homeric or Vergilian epic) followed by a so-called pentameter line. In ancient Greece, as a matter of fact, elegy was used not only for laments, but also (among other things) for lampoons and other frivolous purposes, for love poems, and for drinking songs. One of the great early Roman poets who used the elegiac couplet for a variety of purposes was Catullus himself.

Roman Developments. Together with their almost entirely lost precursor Cornelius Gallus, the Roman love elegists Albius Tibullus and Sextus Propertius shaped Latin love elegy mostly out of the Hellenistic epigram. The Roman genre also grew out of a rejection of the political turmoil characterizing both the last days of the republic and the public lives of upper-class citizens. While any Roman worth his salt would be engaged in negotium (business, whether commerce or public affairs), the elegists require otium (leisure) for their pursuits of poetry and love. They are not devoted to a political party or a cause, but wholly “enslaved” by their beloved. This opposition to the values of the day is further mirrored in the fact that many of them were patronized by Messalla Corvinus rather than Maecenas. Some of their works can now be found in the later books ascribed to Albius Tibullus.

Tibullus. In Tibullus’s own elegies, we find a consistent yearning for peace (1.10,45-50), a predilection for the country over the city as well as for love rather than war. The latter is the domain of Tibullus’s patron Messalla, while the poet devotes his time to his paramours. Love, peace, countryside, and local Italian religion thus form a counterworld to everybody else’s rat race. This counterculture contains many autobiographical elements, but also much literary stylization. While scholars today rightly emphasize the latter, it should not be forgotten that these poems aim at persuading the ever-reluctant beloved to accept the poet-lover, often found locked out of her house and serenading on her doorstep. In short, love elegy claims to be something useful to the lover (Tib. 1.4,14).

Propertius. Sextus Propertius took a different track from his contemporary in that he frequently projected his affection into myth, whereas Tibullus had used the peaceful countryside. In addition, he also used the Callimachean refusal to write epic (recusatio; see also on Horace) to disassociate himself from the demands made on him after joining the circle of Maecenas. Love elegy is a poetic as well as a lifestyle choice that signals opposition to public life, warfare, and writing long-winded epics. This remains true even if Propertius’s beloved Cynthia (pseudonym) is merely a literary construct, as feminist scholars now assert. The focus in elegy is always on the speaker, his emotions, his wishes and dreams. Propertius did, however, change his poetry in his fourth book where he dealt with more Roman themes and Callimachean aitia, stories that give a mythical explanation of contemporary features such as a name or a custom.

Ovid. Love elegy finds its culmination in the early works of Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid), to whom, however, the genre is definitely only a humorous literary game. While Propertius’s first book had started with the phrase Cynthia prima fuit (Cynthia was the first), Ovid opens his three books of Amores with a sequence in which he depicts himself as about to write an epic, until Cupid steals a metrical foot out of every other line, thus forcing him to write elegy. The poet remonstrates that he has no love to write about, whereupon Cupid shoots him with an arrow, thereby making him fall in love (“Poet’ be said, flexing his bow against his knee, / Tll give you something to sing

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

about—take that!”’ [Am. 1.1.23-4 transl. Lee]). Poetry here comes first, love second. In his Amores Ovid does not parody elegy, as is often claimed, but rather makes fun of the absurd situations and arguments of the elegiac lover. Fun was his main aim also in the notorious Art of Love, an elegiac instruction manual for would-be lovers, which would have been about as useful in real life as Vergil’s Georgics would to an Italian farmer. With these works, Ovid, like Tibullus and Propertius, flies in the face of contemporary values, and especially in the face of Augustus’s attempt to reform public morality. The Art of Love was therefore later used at least as a pretense to banish Ovid to the shores of the Black Sea. While the Amores make fun of the male elegiac lover, The Heroides present mythical female lovers pouring their hearts out in futile letters to their absent men. Always in search of novelty, Ovid here combined Horace’s epistolary form with love elegy written from a different angle.

Ovid’s Fasti. Even more Callimachean in inspiration than the Metamorphoses is Ovid’s Fasti, a collection of (mostly Roman) myth and lore associated with the calendar. By post-classical readers this has primarily been regarded as a quarry for anthropologists, but in recent years it has been once again appreciated as a poem in its own right. While the Metamorphoses is an epic with strong elegiac tones and techniques, the Fasti is a narrative elegy in which the genres of epic and elegy are welded together. In spite of its Roman themes, Ovid again cannot keep himself from introducing humorous notes: Romulus is presented as a rapist and tyrant (2.139-142) by contrast with Augustus. If Rome’s founder is seen in this light, maybe Augustus’s aspirations of being its second founder are therefore not that flattering. As he had made fun of the elegiac lover in the Amores, so he makes fun of the voice of the antiquarian who is relating all these stories. And, as in the Metamorphoses, eroticism is not absent. For instance, explaining why the priests of Faunus celebrate their rituals naked, Ovid tells the story of how Hercules and his wife Omphale exchanged clothes. Faunus essentially breaks into their house at night and wants to have his way with Omphale while she is asleep (“He clambers aboard the nearer cot, and Res down,/his tumescent crotch harder than his horns” [Fasti 2.345-6, translation by Nagle]), but finds that under the soft woman’s dress hides the shaggy Hercules, who gives him a beating!

Exile Poetry. Ovid’s taste for the salacious evaporates with his exile. Accused of carmen et error (a poem and a mistake), Ovid was sent to Tomis (in modern Romania) in 8 C.E. to while away the final ten years of his life. The carmen was the Art of Love ; the error remains unknown. From exile he wrote five books of elegy, the Tristia, and four of his Letters from the Black Sea. Both collections have been historically judged as monotonous complaints about his plight, but recent work has focused on their originality in the use of elegiac verse-epistles as well as their undeniable elements of humor. In a way Ovid inverts themes from love elegy: now he is the locked-out exile, Rome the beloved for whom he yearns. Instead of instructing others in the art of love, he instructs his wife in the art of approaching the emperor’s wife. Although he complains about it, his poetic

2.), he defends his Art of Love by trying to show that all literature is erotic in contents: “Yet the blessed author of your great Aeneid/landed ’Arms and the man’ in Dido’s bed” (Trist. 2. 533-4, translation by Melville). Paradoxically, it was probably his error that got him exiled. Whereas he had eroticized myth in earlier years, he is now at pains to “de-eroticize” everything, in order to show that in exile, the world stands on its head. The area of the lower Danube is a veritable mirror image of Rome and Italy as far as climate, people, and economy are concerned. In such an environment, Rome’s most celebrated living poet can only become a “bad” author. The pressure to recall him and turn him into a “good” poet is therefore on. Unfortunately, Augustus felt no need for a good poet in Rome.


Martin Helzle, P. Ouidii Nasonis Epistularum ex Ponto liber IV: A Commentary on Poems 1-7 and 16 (Hildesheim, Germany & New York: Olms, 1989).

Stephen Hinds, The Metamorphosis of Persephone (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Garth Tissol, The Face of Nature: Wit, Narrative, and Cosmic Origins in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

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el·e·gy / ˈeləjē/ • n. (pl. -gies) a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead. ∎  a piece of music in a mournful style. ORIGIN: early 16th cent.: from French élégie, or via Latin, from Greek elegeia, from elegos ‘mournful poem.’

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elegy song of lamentation; poem in elegiac metre. XVI. — F. élégie — L. elegīa — Gr. elegeíā (sb. use of adj., sc. ōidḗ ode), f. élegos (flute-) song, lament, of unkn. orig.; see -Y3.
So elegiac pert. to elegy, written or writing in a metre consisting of alternate hexameters and pentameters. XVI. — late L. — Gr.

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elegy in Greek and Roman poetry, a poem written in elegiac couplets, as notably by Catullus and Propertius; in modern literature, a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead. The word is recorded from the early 16th century and comes via French or Latin from Greek elegeia, from elegos ‘mournful poem’.

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elegy, élégie (Fr.). A song of lament for the dead or for some melancholy event, or an instr. comp. with that suggestion, such as Elgar's Elegy for Strings and Fauré's Élégie.

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