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Roman Elegy: Pain is so Close to Pleasure

13:39, Tue 1 Jun 2010

Ian Fielding discusses elegiac poetry about passion, pain, and pleasure.

Love, longing, lament, loneliness: these feelings found a lyrical outlet in Roman elegy. In this poetic form, the dropouts and outcasts of society gave voice to their excruciating torment of not having, or of no longer having the person they love and desire. In the twilight of the declining old Republic, Catullus sang of his inner turmoil; at the dawn of the new Roman Empire, Tibullus and Ovid wept at their lover’s door. Then later, as the Goths sacked the city of Rome and its Empire sank into insignificance, elegiac poetry reappeared again.
This genre also contains some rather unexpected treasures: we find advice on where to meet girls, how to seduce them, and how to enjoy together with them Aphrodite’s ultimate ecstasy; or we come across a Greek slave girl singing a ditty on a male member that can no longer manage to fulfil its function.
But why did the Romans turn to elegy? How did elegiac poets succeed in fascinating generations of readers? And why are the fate and fortune of the Roman polity so intimately linked to this genre?

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