Elegiac couplet

Elegiac couplet

Ask a question about 'Elegiac couplet'
Start a new discussion about 'Elegiac couplet'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
The elegiac couplet is a poetic form used by Greek lyric poets for a variety of themes usually of smaller scale than the epic
Epic poetry
An epic is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation. Oral poetry may qualify as an epic, and Albert Lord and Milman Parry have argued that classical epics were fundamentally an oral poetic form...

. Roman poets, particularly Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso , known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria...

, adopted the same form in Latin many years later. As with the English heroic
Heroic couplet
A heroic couplet is a traditional form for English poetry, commonly used for epic and narrative poetry; it refers to poems constructed from a sequence of rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter lines. The rhyme is always masculine. Use of the heroic couplet was first pioneered by Geoffrey Chaucer in...

, each couplet usually makes sense on its own, while forming part of a larger work.

Each elegiac consist of a hexameter
Hexameter is a metrical line of verse consisting of six feet. It was the standard epic metre in classical Greek and Latin literature, such as in the Iliad and Aeneid. Its use in other genres of composition include Horace's satires, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. According to Greek mythology, hexameter...

 followed by a pentameter
Pentameter may refer to:*the iambic pentameter of the modern period*the dactylic pentameter of antiquity...


The following is a graphic representation of its scansion
Scansion is the act of determining and graphically representing the metrical character of a line of verse.-Overview:Systems of scansion, and the assumptions that underlie them, are so numerous and contradictory that it is often difficult to tell whether differences in scansion indicate opposed...

. Note that - is a long syllable, u a short syllable, and U either one long or two shorts:
- U | - U | - U | - U | - u u | - -
- U | - U | - || - u u | - u u | -

The form was felt by the ancients to contrast the rising action of the first verse with a falling quality in the second. The sentiment is summarized in a line from Ovid's Amores I.1.27 Sex mihi surgat opus numeris, in quinque residat - "Let my work rise in six steps, fall back in five." The effect is illustrated by Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet, Romantic, literary critic and philosopher who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and a member of the Lake Poets. He is probably best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla...

In the hexameter rises the fountain's silvery column,
In the pentameter aye falling in melody back.

while the form in general is remembered by schoolboys from the doggerel:
Down in a deep dark hole sat an old pig munchin' a bean-stalk.
Out of his mouth came forth: yesterday's dinner and tea.

Greek origins

The elegiac couplet is presumed to be the oldest Greek form of epodic poetry (a form where a later verse is sung in response or comment to a previous one). Scholars theorize the form was originally used in Ionian dirges, with the name "elegy" derived from the Greek ε, λεγε ε, λεγε - "Woe, cry woe, cry!" Hence, the form was used initially for funeral songs, typically accompanied by an aulos (a primitive double-reed instrument similar to the oboe). Archilochus
Archilochus, or, Archilochos While these have been the generally accepted dates since Felix Jacoby, "The Date of Archilochus," Classical Quarterly 35 97-109, some scholars disagree; Robin Lane Fox, for instance, in Travelling Heroes: Greeks and Their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer , p...

 expanded use of the form to treat other themes, such as war, travel, or homespun philosophy. Between Archilochus and other imitators, the verse form became a common poetic vehicle for conveying any strong emotion.

At the end of the 7th century BCE, Mimnermus
Mimnermus was a Greek elegiac poet from either Colophon or Smyrna in Ionia, who flourished about 630-600 BC. He was strongly influenced by the example of Homer yet he wrote short poems suitable for performance at drinking parties and was remembered by ancient authorities chiefly as a love poet...

 of Colophon struck on the innovation of using the verse for erotic poetry. He composed several elegies celebrating his love for the flute girl Nanno, and though fragmentary today his poetry was clearly influential in the later Roman development of the form. Propertius, to cite one example, notes Plus in amore valet Mimnermi versus Homero - "The verse of Mimnermus is stronger in love than Homer".

The form continued to be popular throughout the Greek period and treated a number of different themes. Tyrtaeus
Tyrtaeus was a Greek poet who composed verses in Sparta around the time of the Second Messenian War, the date of which isn't clearly establishedsometime in the latter part of the seventh century BC...

 composed elegies on a war theme, apparently for a Spartan audience. Theognis of Megara
Theognis of Megara
Theognis of Megara was an ancient Greek poet active sometime in the sixth century BC. The work attributed to him consists of gnomic poetry quite typical of the time, featuring ethical maxims and practical advice about life...

 vented himself in couplets as an embittered aristocrat in a time of social change. Popular leaders were writers of elegy--Solon
Solon was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet. He is remembered particularly for his efforts to legislate against political, economic and moral decline in archaic Athens...

 the lawgiver of Athens composed on political and ethical subjects--and even Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 and Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 dabbled with the meter.

By the Hellenic period, the Alexandrian school made elegy its favorite and most highly developed form. They preferred the briefer style associated with elegy in contrast to the lengthier epic forms, and made it the singular medium for short epigrams. The founder of this school was Philitas of Cos
Philitas of Cos
Philitas of Cos , sometimes spelled Philetas , was a scholar and poet during the early Hellenistic period of ancient Greece. A Greek associated with Alexandria, he flourished in the second half of the 4th century BC and was appointed tutor to the heir to the throne of Ptolemaic Egypt...

. He was eclipsed only by the school's most admired exponent, Callimachus
Callimachus was a native of the Greek colony of Cyrene, Libya. He was a noted poet, critic and scholar at the Library of Alexandria and enjoyed the patronage of the Egyptian–Greek Pharaohs Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Ptolemy III Euergetes...

; their learned character and intricate art would have a heavy influence on the Romans.

Roman elegy

Like all Greek forms, elegy was adapted by the Romans for their own literature. The fragments of Ennius
Quintus Ennius was a writer during the period of the Roman Republic, and is often considered the father of Roman poetry. He was of Calabrian descent...

 contain a few couplets, and scattered verses attributed to Roman public figures like Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...

 and Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

 also survive.

But it is the elegists of the mid-to-late first century BCE who are most commonly associated with the distinctive Roman form of the elegiac couplet. Catullus
Gaius Valerius Catullus was a Latin poet of the Republican period. His surviving works are still read widely, and continue to influence poetry and other forms of art.-Biography:...

, the first of these, is an invaluable link between the Alexandrine school and the subsequent elegies of Tibullus
Albius Tibullus was a Latin poet and writer of elegies.Little is known about his life. His first and second books of poetry are extant; many other texts attributed to Tibullus are of questionable origins. There are only a few references to him in later writers and a short Life of doubtful authority...

 and Propertius a generation later. His collection, for example, shows a familiarity with the usual Alexandrine style of terse epigram and a wealth of mythological learning, while his 66th poem is a direct translation of Callimachus' Coma Berenices. Arguably the most famous elegiac couplet in Latin is his two-line 85th poem Odi et Amo:
Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Cornelius Gallus
Cornelius Gallus
Gaius Cornelius Gallus , Roman poet, orator and politician, was born of humble parents at Forum Livii in Italy.At an early age he moved to Rome, where he was taught by the same master as Virgil and Varius Rufus. Virgil, who dedicated one of his eclogues to him, was in great measure indebted to...

 is another important statesman/writer of this period, one who was generally regarded by the ancients as the greatest of the elegists. Other than a few scant lines, all of his work has been lost.

Elegy in the Augustan Age

The form reached its zenith with the collections of Tibullus
Albius Tibullus was a Latin poet and writer of elegies.Little is known about his life. His first and second books of poetry are extant; many other texts attributed to Tibullus are of questionable origins. There are only a few references to him in later writers and a short Life of doubtful authority...

, Propertius, and several collections of Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso , known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria...

 (the Amores, Heroides
The Heroides , or Epistulae Heroidum , are a collection of fifteen epistolary poems composed by Ovid in Latin elegiac couplets, and presented as though written by a selection of aggrieved heroines of Greek and Roman mythology, in address to their heroic lovers who have in some way mistreated,...

, Tristia
The Tristia is a collection of letters written in elegiac couplets by the Augustan poet Ovid during his exile from Rome. Despite five books of his copious bewailing of his fate, the immediate cause of Augustus's banishment of the greatest living Latin poet to Pontus in 8 AD remains a mystery...

, and Epistulae ex Ponto
Epistulae ex Ponto
Epistulae ex Ponto is a work of Ovid, in four books. It is especially important for our knowledge of Scythia Minor in his time....

). The vogue of elegy during this time is seen in the so-called 3rd and 4th book of Tibullus. Many poems in these books were clearly not written by Tibullus but by others, perhaps part of a circle under Tibullus' patron Mesalla. Notable in this collection are the poems of Sulpicia
-Sulpicia I:The earlier Sulpicia is the only known woman from Ancient Rome whose poetry survives to this day. She is said to have lived in the reign of Augustus and have been probably the daughter of Servius Sulpicius Rufus and a niece of Messalla Corvinus, an important patron of literature...

, the only surviving Latin literature written by a woman.

Through these poets--and in comparison with the earlier Catullus--it is possible to trace specific characteristics and evolutionary patterns in the Roman form of the verse:
  • The Roman authors often write about their own love affairs. In contrast to their Greek originals, these poets are characters in his own stories, and write about love in a highly subjective way.
  • The form began to be applied to new themes beyond the traditional love, loss, and other "strong emotion" verse. Propertius uses it to relate aetiological or "origin" myths such as the origins of Rome (IV.1) and the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill (IV.6). Ovid's Heroides
    The Heroides , or Epistulae Heroidum , are a collection of fifteen epistolary poems composed by Ovid in Latin elegiac couplets, and presented as though written by a selection of aggrieved heroines of Greek and Roman mythology, in address to their heroic lovers who have in some way mistreated,...

    --though at first glance fictitious love letters--are described by Ovid himself as a new literary form, and can be read as character studies of famous heroines from mythology. There is also Ovid's Fasti
    Fasti (poem)
    The Fasti is a six-book Latin poem by Ovid believed to have been left unfinished when the poet was exiled to Tomis by the emperor Augustus in the year 8...

    , a lengthy elegiac poem on the first six months of the Roman calendar.
  • The Romans adopted the Alexandrine habit of concealing the name of their beloved in the poem with a pseudonym. Catullus' vexing Lesbia
    Lesbia was the literary pseudonym of the great love of Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus .She was a poet in her own right, included with Catullus in a list of famous poets whose lovers "often" helped them write their verses....

     is notorious as the pseudonym of the teasing Clodia. But as the form developed, this habit becomes more artificial; Tibullus' Delia and Propertius' Cynthia, while likely real people, lack something of the specificity seen in Lesbia, while Ovid's Corinna is often considered a mere literary device.
  • The poets become extremely careful in forming the distinctive pentameter line of their verses. Examples:
    • A trend toward the clear separation of the pentameter halves. Catullus, for example, allows an elision across the caesura in 18 cases, a rare flaw in the later poets (Ovid, for example, never does this).
    • The pentameter begins to show a semi-regular "leonine" rhyme between the two halves of the verse, e.g. Tib. I.1-2, where the culti ending the first half of the pentameter rhymes with the soli closing the verse:
Divitias alius fulvo sibi congerat auro
Et teneat culti iugera multa soli,
    • While Catullus shows this rhyme in about 1 in 5 couplets, the later elegists use it more frequently. Propertius II.34, for example, has the rhyme in nearly half its pentameters. Rhyming between adjacent lines and even in the two halves of the hexameter is also observed, more than would be expected by chance alone.
    • Unlike Catullus, later poets show a definite trend toward ending the pentameter with a two-syllable word. Propertius is especially interesting; in his first two books, he ignores this rule about as frequently as Catullus and Tibullus, but in the last two books endings other than a disyllabic word are very rare. Ovid has no exceptions to the disyllable in his Amores, and only a few proper names occur as polysyllabic endings in his later work.
  • The hexameter follows the usual rhetorical trends of the dactylic hexameter
    Dactylic hexameter
    Dactylic hexameter is a form of meter in poetry or a rhythmic scheme. It is traditionally associated with the quantitative meter of classical epic poetry in both Greek and Latin, and was consequently considered to be the Grand Style of classical poetry...

     in this age. If anything, the elegists are even more interested in verbal effects like alliteration and assonance.

Post-Augustan writers

Although no classical poet wrote collections of love elegies after Ovid, the verse retained its popularity as a vehicle for popular occasional poetry
Occasional poetry
Occasional poetry is poetry composed for a particular occasion. In the history of literature, it is often studied in connection with orality, performance, and patronage. As a term of literary criticism, "occasional poetry" describes the work's purpose and the poet's relation to subject matter...

. Elegiac verses appear, for example, in Petronius
Gaius Petronius Arbiter was a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian age.-Life:...

' Satyricon, and Martial
Marcus Valerius Martialis , was a Latin poet from Hispania best known for his twelve books of Epigrams, published in Rome between AD 86 and 103, during the reigns of the emperors Domitian, Nerva and Trajan...

's Epigrams uses it for many witty stand-alone couplets and for longer pieces. The trend continues through the remainder of the empire; short elegies appear in Apuleius
Apuleius was a Latin prose writer. He was a Berber, from Madaurus . He studied Platonist philosophy in Athens; travelled to Italy, Asia Minor and Egypt; and was an initiate in several cults or mysteries. The most famous incident in his life was when he was accused of using magic to gain the...

's story Psyche and Cupid and the minor writings of Ausonius
Decimius Magnus Ausonius was a Latin poet and rhetorician, born at Burdigala .-Biography:Decimius Magnus Ausonius was born in Bordeaux in ca. 310. His father was a noted physician of Greek ancestry and his mother was descended on both sides from long-established aristocratic Gallo-Roman families...


Medieval elegy

After the fall of the empire, one writer who produced elegaic verse was Maximianus
Maximianus (poet)
Maximianus or Maximian was a Latin elegiac poet of the 6th century who has been called "in some sort, the last of the Roman poets".-Life:...

. Various Christian writers also adopted the form; Venantius Fortunatus
Venantius Fortunatus
Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus was a Latin poet and hymnodist in the Merovingian Court, and a Bishop of the early Catholic Church. He was never canonised but was venerated as Saint Venantius Fortunatus during the Middle Ages.-Life:Venantius Fortunatus was born between 530 and 540 A.D....

 wrote some of his hymns in the meter, while later Alcuin
Alcuin of York or Ealhwine, nicknamed Albinus or Flaccus was an English scholar, ecclesiastic, poet and teacher from York, Northumbria. He was born around 735 and became the student of Archbishop Ecgbert at York...

 and the Venerable Bede dabbled in the verse. The form also remained popular among the educated classes for gravestone epitaphs; many such epitaphs can be found in European cathedrals.

De tribus puellis
De tribus puellis
De tribus puellis or The Three Girls is an anonymous medieval Latin poem, a narrative elegiac comedy written probably in France during the twelfth or early thirteenth century...

is an example of a Latin fabliau
A fabliau is a comic, often anonymous tale written by jongleurs in northeast France between ca. 1150 and 1400. They are generally characterized by an excessiveness of sexual and scatological obscenity. Several of them were reworked by Giovanni Boccaccio for the Decamerone and by Geoffrey Chaucer...

, a genre of comedy
Comedy , as a popular meaning, is any humorous discourse or work generally intended to amuse by creating laughter, especially in television, film, and stand-up comedy. This must be carefully distinguished from its academic definition, namely the comic theatre, whose Western origins are found in...

 which employed elegiac couplets in imitation of Ovid. The medieval theorist John of Garland wrote that "all comedy is elegy, but the reverse is not true." Medieval Latin
Medieval Latin
Medieval Latin was the form of Latin used in the Middle Ages, primarily as a medium of scholarly exchange and as the liturgical language of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, but also as a language of science, literature, law, and administration. Despite the clerical origin of many of its authors,...

 had a developed comedic genre known as elegiac comedy
Elegiac comedy
Elegiac comedy was a genre of medieval Latin literature or drama popular in the twelfth century. About twenty such works survive, almost all of them produced in west central France . Though commonly identified in manuscripts as comoedia, modern scholars often reject their status as comedy. Unlike...

. Sometimes narrative, sometimes drama
Drama is the specific mode of fiction represented in performance. The term comes from a Greek word meaning "action" , which is derived from "to do","to act" . The enactment of drama in theatre, performed by actors on a stage before an audience, presupposes collaborative modes of production and a...

tic, it deviated from ancient practice because, as Ian Thompson writes, "no ancient drama would ever have been written in elegiacs."

Renaissance and modern period

With the Renaissance, more skilled writers interested in the revival of Roman culture took on the form in a way which attempted to recapture the spirit of the Augustan writers. The Dutch Latinist Johannes Secundus
Johannes Secundus
Johannes Secundus was a New Latin poet of Dutch nationality.- Early life and education :...

, for example, included Catullus-inspired love elegies in his Liber Basiorum, while the English poet John Milton
John Milton
John Milton was an English poet, polemicist, a scholarly man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell...

 wrote several lengthy elegies throughout his career. This trend continued down through the Recent Latin
Recent Latin
Contemporary Latin is the form of the Latin language used from the end of the 19th century through to the present. Various kinds of contemporary Latin can be distinguished. On the one hand there is its symbolic survival in areas like taxonomy and others as the result of the widespread presence of...

writers, whose close study of their Augustan counterparts reflects their general attempts to apply the cultural and literary forms of the ancient world to contemporary themes.

External links