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The elegiac couplet is a poetic form used by Greek lyric poets for a variety of themes usually of smaller scale than the epic. Roman poets, particularly Ovid, adopted the same form in Latin many years later. As with the English heroic, each couplet usually makes sense on its own, while forming part of a larger work.
Each couplet consist of a hexameter verse followed by a pentameter verse. The following is a graphic representation of its scansion. Note that - is a long syllable, u a short syllable, and U is either one long syllable or two short syllables:
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 as:
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 double-reed instrument. Archilochus 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 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 composed elegies on a war theme, apparently for a Spartan audience. Theognis of Megara vented himself in couplets as an embittered aristocrat in a time of social change. Popular leaders were writers of elegy—Solon the lawgiver of Athens composed on political and ethical subjects—and even Plato and Aristotle dabbled with the meter.
By the Hellenistic 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. He was eclipsed only by the school's most admired exponent, Callimachus; their learned character and intricate art would have a heavy influence on the Romans.
Like all Greek forms, elegy was adapted by the Romans for their own literature. The fragments of Ennius contain a few couplets, and scattered verses attributed to Roman public figures like Cicero and Julius Caesar 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, the first of these, is an invaluable link between the Alexandrine school and the subsequent elegies of Tibullus 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:
Cornelius Gallus 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.
The form reached its zenith with the collections of Tibullus, Propertius, and several collections of Ovid (the Amores, Heroides, Tristia, and Epistulae ex Ponto). 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, 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:
Although no classical poet wrote collections of love elegies after Ovid, the verse retained its popularity as a vehicle for popular occasional poetry. Elegiac verses appear, for example, in Petronius' Satyricon, and Martial'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's story Psyche and Cupid and the minor writings of Ausonius.
After the fall of the empire, one writer who produced elegiac verse was Maximianus. Various Christian writers also adopted the form; Venantius Fortunatus wrote some of his hymns in the meter, while later Alcuin 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 is an example of a Latin fabliau, a genre of comedy 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 had a developed comedic genre known as elegiac comedy. Sometimes narrative, sometimes dramatic, it deviated from ancient practice because, as Ian Thompson writes, "no ancient drama would ever have been written in elegiacs."
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, for example, included Catullus-inspired love elegies in his Liber Basiorum, while the English poet John Milton wrote several lengthy elegies throughout his career. This trend continued down through the Recent Latin 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.