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1. In the broad sense Latin Elegy may be said to include everything in Latin written in the elegiac distich, which was a popular metrical form from the days of the Roman republic down to the later medieval epoch. But Roman elegy, in the more restricted and commonly accepted use of the term, refers to the elegiac verse of a noteworthy group of poets whose literary activity belongs chiefly to that most interesting half century of Rome preceding the Christian era, when the Republic fell and the Empire was built upon its ruins. The works of at least two or three of these elegiac poets have almost entirely disappeared. Posterity, however, has been more kind to four of them, Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovidius (Ovid). The first and last of these did not confine their literary composition to the elegiac distich, as in all probability the second and third of the group did ; but it is with elegy only that we are now concerned.
Pre-Roman Elegy 2. Like most other forms of Roman literature, elegy is deeply indebted to Greece for both its form and its content, though the origin of this type of poetry is beyond the reach of the literary historian, and most of its Greek masterpieces during the centuries succeeding such origin have long since vanished. Horace (A. P. 75-78) wrote:
versibus impariter iunctis querimonia primum,
This case is still on the calendar, and doubtless many courts will adjourn sine die before an ultimate decision is rendered. Perhaps of barbarian origin, the rhythm of the pentameter was certainly used in early Ionian Asia in dirges or other songs of mournful remembrance, before the advent of the earliest writers of the elegy as a literary type. The regular accompaniment to these early songs was the flute. Possibly two parts of the verse were sung responsively by a double chorus. The original names for this mournful pentameter, έλεγείον (έπος), έλεγεία (έπη), have been variously explained as derived from έλεγε έ λέγε ί= Woe! Woel cry woe!' (Suidas) or é & déy' && déye (Wilamowitz); but from the beginning it was probably associated with the hexameter, either as an occasional verse after a group of hexameters, or in the form of a couplet, and the terms were in early times used also to designate this couplet, or distich. The form édeyela (toinois or wan) was favored later, and the Hellenistic Greeks and the Romans preferred the words čleyou and elegi for poems in this measure. (The form elogium, which appeared quite early in Latin, was reserved more especially for the sepulchral inscription or the epigram.)
3. The elegiac distich, apparently the first epodic Greek measure, became the vehicle of expression for a wide variety of poetic sentiments, varying from funeral song to erotic ecstasy. As compared with the hexameter the pentameter was considered weak (mollis was the Latin epithet), and the combination of the two seemed to lend itself more easily to the various emotions of the human heart, leading as an intermediate step to the more highly developed forms of lyric poetry. Archilochus (floruit c. 650 B.C.), to whom is attributed the invention of other poetic forms, used elegiac verse not only for funeral songs, but also to treat of warlike themes, of travel, and of the philosophy of life. The Ephesian Callinus, an older contemporary of Archilochus, employed the same metrical form for patriotic war songs. He was long credited with having invented the measure itself.
1Ct. P. W.5, 2260 sqq.
Tyrtaeus likewise sang in the elegiac measure war songs to inspire the Lacedaemonians in the second Messenian war. Simonides (or Semonides) of Amorgos wrote elegies besides his iambic poems.
4. With Mimnermus of Colophon, towards the end of the seventh century B.C., an important innovation appeared. He produced not only war songs, like his predecessors, but also a book, or books, of erotic elegies, celebrating his love for a beautiful flute-playing girl named Nanno. Himself a flute player too, he expresses subjectively the sympathetic passion of the lover, and mourns over the swift passing of youth and its ardent feelings. That this book, which he called Nanno after his darling, occupied a prominent place as a prototype of Roman elegy in general, and of Propertius and his Cynthia book in particular, cannot be doubted."
5. From this time to the end of the great period of Greek literature elegy was popular and treated a great variety of topics. Many leaders in public life as well as in literature wrote elegy. Solon, the famous lawgiver of Athens (c. 638-559), wrote of political and ethical subjects, as well as of youthful joys and loves. Demosthenes in his speech on the false embassy had part of an elegy of Solon read to the court in support of his plea. This ethical, or gnomic, elegy is represented also by the rivals, Phocylides of Miletus and Demodocus of Leros, in the sixth century, and by Theognis of Megara, the only one of all these early Greek elegists whose works have survived to our time in anything like completeness. Theognis belonged to the latter half of this century, and suffered many political vicissitudes. There was an elegy of his (not extant) upon the citizens of Syracuse who were saved in the siege ; and we have, attributed to him, a collection of wise sayings in two books, including many elegies addressed to special friends, such as Simonides, Clearistus, and Damocles, and especially to his dear young friend
1 Cf. Prop. 1, 9, 11; Wilamowitz in Sitzungsberichte d. Kgl. Pr. Akad. d. Wiss. 1912, pp. 100 sqq. (reprint with additions in Sappho u. Simonides, Berlin, 1913).
ROM. EL. POETS -- 2
Cyrnus. In many cases at least they appear to have been first intended to be sung at banquets, and were only later prepared for the reading public without musical accompaniment. Antimachus, Dionysius Chalcus, two elegists named Euenus, of Paros, and Critias, one of the thirty tyrants, are among the many names of elegists during this period, while Plato and Aristotle dabbled in elegy much as Cicero did in hexameters, and Pliny in erotic verse.
6. Simonides of Ceos (556-468 B.c.), the gifted poet whose talent expressed itself in so many forms, did not neglect the patriotic idea, composing elegiac verses on the victories of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea. But by his excellence in threnetic elegy, including certain famous epigrams, he did much to recall the original mournful character of the measure and thus to maintain the tradition concerning its nature which has survived to modern times in the significance of the term “elegy."1 Finally, Antimachus of Colophon, who flourished about 400 B.C., paved the way for the Alexandrian school of elegy by his learned
This appeared indeed in his epic Thebais, but was especially noteworthy in the elaborate elegy in which he undertook to console himself for the death of his darling Lyde by telling in rather wearisome detail of the unhappy loves of mythology, thus creating the objective erotic type, as contrasted with the subjective type introduced by Mimnermus.
7. Among the famous group of scholars and men of letters who flourished in the Alexandrian epoch elegy and elegiac epigram were the most highly favored and developed forms of poetry. The prevalent type was erotic. Learning, elaboration, and technique, rather than invention or emotion, characterized the Alexandrian school, thus determining to an important degree elements that were to be prominent in the Roman elegy, whose immediate model it was to become. The two names that stand
1 Cf. Hor. Car. 2, 1, 38: Ceae retractes munera neniae; Cat. 38, 8: maestius lacrimis Simonideis; though both these citations probably refer more especially to the lyric threnodies of Simonides. Cf. Nageotte, Vol. 2, p. 132.