The English Elegy and Its Classical Origins
Keywords:elegy, English literature, historical presntation
Transplanted into the vernacular languages and later periods, Classical art forms sometimes assume very different characteristics from the original ones, largely under the influence of the cultures into which they have been adopted. This applies to the genre of elegy, which is addressed in the present paper. In Greco-Roman times, the ‘elegy’ was any longer elegiac form (that is, a poem composed in the elegiac couplet), which could deal, especially in Ancient Greece, with a number of themes expressing personal feelings or opinions: exhortations to war or virtue, reflections on serious or light topics, epitaphs or laments, and often love. In English poetry, the term ‘elegy’ first appeared in the 16th century, which also witnessed the beginnings of a separate sub-genre – the funeral elegy. From an initial generalised meaning, which reflected the broad thematic scope of the Classical genre, ‘elegy’ gradually narrowed down to a poem expressing lament or displaying a grave, pensive tone. An important influence on the funeral elegy was Classical pastoral poetry, or rather the laments for dead persons which were sometimes embedded in eclogues. As a result, a number of devices used by the founder of pastoral poetry, Theocritus, in the 3rd century BC recur as conventions in the major English elegies from the 16th to the 20th centuries, although recent English elegy often defies tradition. Another important divergence from the Classical genre is the arbitrariness of form: ever since its beginnings, the English elegy has displayed a variety of verse patterns, and nowadays even a novel may be labelled an ‘elegy’. Thus the decisive criterion of the genre has shifted from form to content and especially to mood.
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