Elegiac couplets are a poetic form used by Greek lyric poets for a variety of themes usually of smaller scale than those of epic poetry. The ancient Romans frequently used elegiac couplets in love poetry, as in Ovid's Amores. As with heroic couplets, the couplets are usually self-contained and express a complete idea.
Elegiac couplets consist of alternating lines of dactylic hexameter and pentameter: two dactyls followed by a long syllable, a caesura, then two more dactyls followed by a long syllable.
The following is a graphic representation of its scansion. Note that - is a long syllable, u a short syllable, and U either one long or two shorts:
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 by a line from Ovid's Amores I.1.27 Sex mihi surgat opus numeris, in quinque residat - "Let my work surge in six feet, quiet down in five." The effect is further illustrated by the following English example written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
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 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. 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 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. 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.
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