Energy from Elegy: What Did the Greeks Use Elegiac Poetry for?

Krystyna Bartol

Surely all of us, not just avid readers of poetry, have at some time or other read a work containing the word ‘elegy’ in its title. These poems we have take into our hands either of our own free will, or when forced to by a strict teacher at school. Perhaps it was the famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1750) by Thomas Gray, or Elegy Before Death (1921) by Edna St Vincent Millay, Elegy For Myself (1987) by Stanley Moss, or less-known to non-Polish readers, but very stirring Elegy on the Death of Waryński (1928) by Władysław Broniewski from the volume Sorrow and Song.[1]

Surely we all have read the nostalgic and melancholic works of poets from all times, classified in textbooks as ‘elegies’, in which sad reflections on the past and the present, also with regard to the themes of love, and often in a pastoral setting, mark out a maudlin and effusively sentimental mood – as well as that of existential anxiety or cultural pessimism. Movie lovers undoubtedly remember the 2008 film Elegy starring Penélope Cruz and Ben Kingsley in the lead roles; this was a love story filled with bitterness, the sadness of time passing, and a sense of hopelessness.

Promotional poster for Elegy (dir. Isabel Coixet, 2008).

The same can be seen in European visual art, where sadness was routinely expressed in paintings entitled Elegy, drawing on different elements of the landscape, depending on the artist’s geographical point of reference:

Elegy, Apollinary Vasnetsov, 1893 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia).
Elegy (or Blizzard in a Cemetery), Eugeniusz Steinsberg, 1898 (Rogalin Gallery, near Poznań, Poland).

Expressing grief, sorrow and lamentation became, thanks to the Augustan Roman poet Ovid (43 BC–AD 17/18), the distinctive feature of elegy as a literary genre in our minds. In Poem 9 of Book 3 of his Amores (Love affairs), he calls upon the personified Elegy, whom he labels with the adjective flebilis, “tearful”, to come to mourn the premature death of his friend, the poet Tibullus (c.55–19 BC). A revealing modern example of the tendency to associate elegy with misfortune and an atmosphere of sadness can be seen in the decision of an anonymous author on Wikipedia to illustrate the entry for Elegy with an allegorical painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905): Douleur d’amour (The pain of love), also known as Élégie (Elegy), features a sad woman in mourning, leaning in hopeless dispair on the pillar and accompanied by Cupid rubbing tears from his eyes.

Elegy (or Douleur d’Amour), William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1899 (priv. coll.).

Contemporaneously with Ovid, Horace drew attention in his Ars poetica (The art of poetry), to the existence of two types of poetry arranged in the so-called elegiac couplet – called by him versus impariter iuncti (v.75), “verses unequally joined” (since the first line, the hexameter, was longer than the second one, called the pentameter). He adds that it can express complaint (querimonia) and include wishes (voti sententia compos, “expression of one’s gratified wish”), i.e. they can be epigrammatic votive or dedicatory texts.[2] Primarily, however, he considered elegy to be a literary genre. Some ancient philologists and lexicographers emphasised that the elegiac metre itself evokes the dying man’s last breath, since the pentameter “goes out like one’s final breath”. This may seem a rather bizzare association, but a similar feeling of falling down in the couplet’s second line must have influenced Friedrich Schiller (1759–1808), when composing his ‘aquatic’ definition of the elegiac distich: In hexameter climbs the fountain’s affluent column, / In pentameter then falls it melodically down (trans. Will Wertz).[3]

Some thought that the Greek name elegos (ἔλεγος) and its cognates elegeion (ἐλεγεῖον) and elegeiā (ἐλεγεία) comes from the cry of mourning, eleleu! (ἐλελεῦ). The reduction in meaning of the generic name “elegy” to lament was probably caused also by the fact that the couplet, consisting of hexameter and pentameter, was from early times very popular in tombstone inscriptions and later in funerary literary epigrams.

However, the earliest surviving texts traditionally labeled as elegies, which date from the 7th to the 5th centuries BC, strongly contradict the idea of thematic homogeneity; the artistic activity of the elegeiopoioi (ἐλεγειοποιοί), “composers of elegies”, was strikingly diverse. The elegiac mood, or elegiac emotionality, understood today as a nostalgic and melancholic attitude to life, was by no means a distinctive feature of archaic elegy, which at its earliest stage was mostly sung to the accompaniment of a wind instrument called the aulos, at Greek feasts (symposia), and more official public gatherings or festivals. The symposia were community-building occasions, combining religious, educational and entertainment aspects.

Attic red-figure bell-krater depicting a female aulos-player at a symposium, attributed to the Nicias Painter, c.420 BC (National Archaeological Museum, Madrid, Spain).

Spending time with a chalice in hand in the company of fellow diners, talking and singing together (the metrical pattern of the elegiac distich, a small stanza, must have made improvisation especially easy for Greeks who were not professional artists), contributed to the transmission from generation to generation of aristocratic ideals and attitudes; symposiasts were thus encouraged to undertake specific deeds and actions, to realise the real charms of life, and to face adversity when necessary. The Greeks got a similar sense of belonging to a community and drew a good deal of their energy for action from listening to narratives arranged in elegiac couplets, which were presented on public official occasions. These often recounted tales of cities’ foundations (such as Mimnermus’ Smyrneis and Xenophanes’ Foundation of Colophon), or the admirable deeds of heroes from the distant past (such as Archilochus’ mythological poem on Telephus, the king of the Mysians, who lost their way when sailing to Troy), or very recent history (such as Simonides’ Plataea Elegy, which glorified the Greek military victory against the invading Persians in the Plataea campaign of 479 BC). 

Early Greek elegy thus presents many themes, moods and styles. It was a means of chanelling various experiences, attitudes and emotions. It was treated by the Greeks as a vehicle for enjoyable instruction. We find in it echoes of patriotic exultation, as for example in Callinus:

μέχρις τέο κατάκεισθε; κότ’ ἄλκιμον ἕξετε θυμόν,
    ὦ νέοι; οὐδ’αἰδεῖσθ’ ἀμφιπερικτίονας
ὧδε λίην μεθιέντες; ἐν εἰρήνηι δὲ δοκεῖτε
    ἧσθαι, ἀτὰρ πόλεμος γαῖαν ἅπασαν ἔχει.

How long will you lie idle? When will you young men
    take courage? Don’t our neighbours make you feel
ashamed, so much at ease? You look to sit at peace,
    but all the country’s in the grip of war! (fr.1.1–4 W., trans. M.L. West)

and calls upon readers to be brave defenders of their homeland, as is the case in Tyrtaeus:

θυμῷ γῆς περὶ τῆσδε μαχώμεθα καὶ περὶ παίδων
   θνῄσκωμεν ψυχέων μηκέτι φειδόμενοι.
ὦ νέοι, ἀλλὰ μάχεσθε παρ᾽ ἀλλήλοισι μένοντες,
   μηδὲ φυγῆς αἰσχρᾶς ἄρχετε μηδὲ φόβου.

So let us fight with spirit for our land,
   die for our sons, and spare our lives no more.
You young men, keep together, hold the line,
   do not start panic or disgraceful rout. (fr.10.13–16W., trans. M.L. West)

We also find in it evocations of longing for love and amatory experiences, as the poet says in the collection called Theognidea:

ὦ παῖ, μέχρι τίνος με προφεύξεαι; ὥς σε διώκων
    δίζημ᾽. ἀλλὰ τί μοι τέρμα γένοιτο κιχεῖν
σῆς ὀργῆς. σὺ δὲ μάργον ἔχων καὶ ἀγήνορα θυμὸν
    φεύγεις, ἰκτίνου σχέτλιον ἦθος ἔχων.
ἀλλ᾽ ἐπίμεινον, ἐμοὶ δὲ δίδου χάριν. οὐκέτι δηρὸν
    ἕξεις Κυπρογενοῦς δῶρον ἰοστεφάνου.

How long, lad, will you run away? I’m chasing you,
    seeking you: let me have some finish-line
to catch you at! But you with proud and reckless heart
    flee, with the cruel nature of a kite.
No, wait for me – give me your favour! Not for long
    will blue-wreathed Aphrodite’s boon be yours. (Theognidea, 1299–1304, trans. M.L. West)

and the joy of spending time together at a communal feast:

χαίρετε συμπόται ἄνδρες ὁμ[……ἐ]ξ ἀγαθοῦ γάρ
    ἀρξάμενος τελέω τὸν λόγον [ε]ἰς ἀγα[θό]ν.
χρὴ δ’, ὅταν εἰς τοιοῦτο συνέλθωμεν φίλοι ἄνδρες
    πρᾶγμα, γελᾶν παίζειν χρησαμένους ἀρετῆι,
ἥδσθαί τε συνόντας, ἐς ἀλλήλους τε ϕ[λ]υαρεῖν
    καὶ σκώπτειν τοιαῦθ’ οἷα γέλωτα φέρειν.

Hail, fellow drinkers, agemates: from this happy start
    I’ll bring my discourse to a happy end.
When friends foregather for occasions such as this,
    we ought to laugh and joke in high-class style,
enjoy each other’s company, make silly chat
    and banter such as fosters merriment. (Adesp. Eleg., 27.1–6 W., trans. M.L. West)

Early elegy also abounds in reflections on praiseworthy values and attitudes during the feast:

χρὴ δὲ πρῶτον μὲν θεὸν ὑμνεῖν εὔφρονας ἄνδρας
    εὐφήμοις μύθοις καὶ καθαροῖσι λόγοις·
σπείσαντας δὲ καὶ εὐξαμένους τὰ δίκαια δύνασθαι
    πρήσσειν – ταῦτα γὰρ ὦν ἐστὶ προχειρότερον –
οὐχ ὕβρις πίνειν ὁπόσον κεν ἔχων ἀφίκοιο
    οἴκαδ᾽ ἄνευ προπόλου μὴ πάνυ γηραλέος.

The first thing men of sense should do is sing of God
in words of holiness and purity,
with a libation and a prayer for means to do
what’s right; that’s more straightforward, after all,
than crimes. Than drink what you can hold and still get home
unaided (if, of course, you’re not too old). (Xenophanes, fr.1.13–18 W., trans. M.L. West)

and yet beyond:

ταῦτα διδάξαι θυμὸς Ἀθηναίους με κελεύει,
    ὡς κακὰ πλεῖστα πόλει δυσνομία παρέχει,
εὐνομία δ᾽ εὔκοσμα καὶ ἄρτια πάντ᾽ ἀποφαίνει.

This lesson I desire to teach the Athenians:
Lawlessness brings the city countless ills,
while Lawfulness sets all in order as is due. (Solon, fr.4.30–2 W., trans. M.L. West)

It is true that early elegy also expressed a mood of sombre solemnity, grief and even mourning, but this was only one of many tenors of a thematically manifold genre. Besides, mourning does not seem to be a driving force in such elegiac songs. The only surviving archaic elegy dominated by lamentation is that of Archilochus, a poet from the island of Paros who lived in the 7th century BC. The ancient tradition leads us to believe that the poet composed this poem in despair after a shipwreck in which prominent citizens died, including the his brother-in-law:

κήδεα μὲν στονόεντα, Περίκλεες, οὔτε τις ἀστῶν
    μεμφόμενος θαλίῃς τέρψεται οὔτε πόλις·
τοίους γὰρ κατὰ κῦμα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης
    ἔκλυσεν, οἰδαλέους δ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ ὀδύνῃς ἔχομεν
πνεύμονας· ἀλλὰ θεοὶ γὰρ ἀνηκέστοισι κακοῖσιν,
    ὦ φίλ᾽, ἐπὶ κρατερὴν τλημοσύνην ἔθεσαν
φάρμακον· ἄλλοτε δ᾽ ἄλλον ἔχει τάδε· νῦν μὲν ἐς ἡμέας
    ἐτράπεθ᾽, αἱματόεν δ᾽ ἕλκος ἀναστένομεν,
ἐξαῦτις δ᾽ ἑτέρους ἐπαμείψεται· ἀλλὰ τάχιστα
    τλῆτε γυναικεῖον πένθος ἀπωσάμενοι.

Not a man in the town will find fault, Pericles,
    with our mourning, and enjoy his festival,
nor in the canton: such fine men the surge
    of the tempestuous sea has overwhelmed,
and swollen are our lungs with piercing pain.
    But then, my friend, the gods for ills past healing
have set endurance as the antidote.
    This woe is different men’s at different times:
now it has come our way, and we bemoan
    our bleeding wound; another day ’twill pass
to others. Come then, everyone endure,
    spend no more time in womanish lament. (fr.13, trans. M.L. West)

The shipwreck, J.M.W. Turner, 1805 (Tate Britain, London).

A careful reading of this elegy lets us see in its groaning image of mourning – one filled with descriptions of the physiological symptoms of despair – an expressive prelude to the consolatory part of the work. Therefore the poem is not an idle meditation on the immensity of suffering. Instead, the painful experience of an individual here becomes a significant exemplum of human fate, serving as a positive exhortation to accept approvingly humans’ dependence on divine designs and intentions. The tlēmosynē, “endurance”, recommended by Archilochus is nothing other than the ability to remain steadfast, despite adversity and unforeseen misfortunes. It is a value that gives sense to human existence. Just as sadness is an integral part of the universal emotional world order, so tlēmosynē is meant to be an effective defence against the danger of someone plunging into interminable hopelessness; it is a medicine which guarantees one’s return to spiritual balance. The elegy is therefore not a pure lamentation, but a reflective and simultaneously persuasive piece, urging the audience to understand the principles governing the world and to overcome depressive moods that may be justified in the moment but, as the experience of generations shows, must later end so that life can go on.

The same holds true for Mimnermus’ obsessive thought about the shortness of human life and the fear of old age, which he sees as a greater evil than death itself (fr. 2.9–10):

αὐτὰρ ἐπὴν δὴ τοῦτο τέλος παραμείψεται ὥρης,
    αὐτίκα δὴ τεθνάναι βέλτιον ἢ βίοτος.

And once this season of perfection’s past,
it’s better to be dead than stay alive. (trans. M.L. West)

The conviction that the good quality of youth is unstable and passes quickly, while evil, whose quintessential period is old age, is inevitable and burdensome, consequently leads him to call for the affirmation of life, the enjoyment of the fleeting moment of youth and the pleasures it brings. By ostentatiously enumerating the burdens of old age, Mimnermus seems to be exhorting readers to “seize the day while you can, because when you get old, it will be too late.”  

Frontispiece depicting Proteus from Erasmus Finx’s Der Höllische Proteus (The Infernal Proteus, Nuremberg, 1695).

One can say that elegy was from its very origins a “Protean” poetic genre. Like the mythological sea-god Proteus who constantly changed his shape (now becoming a lion, now a snake, now a pig, tree or anything else) elegy covered many topics, assuming various forms and functions, and yet always being composed in the same metre. In the lives of early Greeks it served as an instrument of praise and reproof, as an artistic vehicle which comforted, mourned, instructed, admonished, called to action, confessed love, and expressed the pure joy of everyday moments. In short, elegy accompanied Greeks in both their sorrows and joys. But unlike Proteus, who could foresee the future and foretell it to his visitors, the earliest elegists probably did not expect that posterity would so narrow the meaning of the words “elegy” and “elegiac”, limiting it to gloomy and melancholic content. And although nowadays the word elegia is primarily associated, in art, literature and many other spheres, with darkness and everything related to that, one can still find a modern reference to elegia that is devoid of tearful grief and sorrowful delcline – a reference that would surely have pleased the Ancient Greeks:

A magnum of Elegia, Primitivo di Manduria Riserva, from Puglia, Italy.

Krystyna Bartol is Professor at the Institute of Classical Studies, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland. She writes on Greek poetry, especially lyric, and Greek Imperial prose. Recently she has returned to the study of elegiac poetry, which she became interested in years ago as a doctoral student. She has just tackled, in a paper delivered at the University of L’Aquila in Italy, the relationship of elegy to other poetic genres, especially epigram; on a visit to Sulmona in May this year, she looked with mild reproach at the face of Ovid, whose statue towers over the piazza, for calling Elegy flebilis (“tearful”), thus perpetuating in our imagination a somewhat false picture of the genre.  She has previously written for Antigone on ancient music and Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae.

Further Reading

A concise study of the nature of early elegy and an accessible discussion of the work of the oldest Greek elegiac poets can be found in the two chapters of the Blackwell Companion to Greek Lyric edited by Laura Swift (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester/Malden, MA, 2022): Chapter 15 (Krystyna Bartol, “Elegy,” 221–33) and Chapter 21 (Ewen Bowie, “Solon and Theognis,” 303–16). See also D.E. Gerber, A Companion to the Greek Lyric Poets (Brill, Leiden, 1997) 89–132, and A. Aloni, “Elegy: Forms, Functions and Communication,” in F. Budelmann (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Lyric (Cambridge UP, 2008) 168–88. This is where the reader will find further bibliographical guidance.


1 This is a brilliant, flaming piece of poetry, strikingly expressive in its rhythm and filled with realistic image of the last moments in prison of a 19th-century political activist arrested by Tsarist secret police. You can learn more about Broniewski here.
2 It must be said, however, that there were, and still are, some critics that understand this phrase as reffering to poems that express the fulfilment of lovers’ wishes. So they believe Horace meant love elegy here.
3 Im Hexameter steigt des Springquells flüssige Säule, / Im Pentameter drauf fällt sie melodisch herab.