Greek elegiac poetry

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This may be initially defined as poetry in elegiac couplets (see metre, greek 3, 4). The term elegeion normally meaning ‘elegiac couplet’, is derived from elegos, a sung lament that must have been characteristically in this metre, but the metre was always used for many other purposes.

A stricter definition distinguishes between elegiac poetry (elegy) and epigram (which was often in elegiac metre). Elegy, in the early period, was composed for oral delivery in a social setting, as a communication from the poet to others; an epigram was information written on an object (a tombstone, a dedication, etc.). The distinction was not always so clear after the 4th cent. bc, when the epigram came to be cultivated as a literary genre.

Archaic elegy is already established on both sides of the Aegean by c.650 bc when the first recorded elegists appear: Archilochus, Callinus of Ephesus, and Tyrtaeus. From then till the end of the 5th cent. bc elegy was a popular medium; some poets used no other.

Many pieces presuppose the symposium as the setting in which they were designed to be heard. Theognis expects that his elegies addressed to Cyrnus will often be sung by young men at banquets to the accompaniment of auloi. There are other mentions of an aulete (aulos‐player) accompanying the singing of elegy in the symposium, and an early 5th‐cent. vase‐painting shows a reclining symposiast with words of an elegiac verse issuing from his mouth while an aulete plays. Certain elegists (Tyrtaeus, Mimnermus) are said to have been auletes themselves.

A common use of elegy in the 7th cent. was in exhorting the poet's fellow citizens to fight bravely for their country. In other poems of Tyrtaeus and Solon the exhortation is political, presumably delivered to a social gathering from which participants might pass the message on to other gatherings. Solon, at least, also wrote elegies of a more personal, convivial character. Mimnermus was famous for elegies celebrating the pleasures of love and youth. He also used the versatile elegiac for his Smyrneis, a quasi‐epic, complete with invocation of the Muses, on the Smyrnaeans' heroic repulse of the Lydians around the time of the poet's birth (see gyges).

The largest surviving body of Archaic elegy is the collection of poems and excerpts, some 1,400 lines in all, transmitted under the name of Theognis. He is actually only one among many poets represented, ranging in date from the 7th to the early 5th cent. bc. Here we find a wide cross‐section: political and moralizing verse, social comment, personal complaint, convivial pieces, witty banter, love poems to nameless boys. Other items are reflective or philosophic, and develop an argument on some ethical or practical question. This dialectic element was a feature of elegy from the start, but became more prominent later, e.g. in Xenophanes.

Simonides used the medium to celebrate the great battles of 480/79 bc; his grandiose poem on Plataea recalls Mimnermus' Smyrneis (see plataea, battle of). By the end of the 5th cent. the symposium was fast losing its songfulness, and elegy in the classical style was drying up.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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