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Primary unit: elegiac couplet
Transcript of Primary unit: elegiac couplet
Is Roman love elegy a narrative genre?
Obstacles to reading elegy as narrative
Lack of chronology and continuity in and across poems
(Relative) absence of plot, action and event
“To believe that our elegists tell the story of their affairs, one must not have read them…They have no chronology, and each elegy deals with its themes independently of all others…It is a poetry without action, with no plot leading to denouement or maintaining any tension, and this is why time has no reality in it” (Veyne, 1998: 50-51)
Ancient narrative theory: Aristotle insisted on unified plot in which
take place in
temporally structured sequence
Broad consensus on importance of these elements, but no consensus on definition
Key theorists: Paul Ricoeur (1984), Gérard Genette (1982), Mieke Bal (1997)
Narrative is about...
The temporality of existence
(Marie-Laure Ryan, 2007: 24)
“Do you feel real concern, Cerinthus, for your girl
now that a fever afflicts my tired body?” (3.17)
“That hateful birthday’s near which must be sadly spent
in tedious countryside and without Cerinthus” (3.14)
"But now, no Venus without me! Obey Diana
chastely, boy, and touch the nets with chaste hands.
And any girl that creeps up on my love by stealth,
may she meet wild beasts and be torn to bits.” (3.9)
All presented as problems to be resolved
Resolutions often assumed rather than described
Sulpicia’s recovery is not related, but return to health read into the spaces between poems
Cerinthus’ infidelity seems to be forgiven in next poem as Sulpicia seeks reassurance that his love is genuine
Crises as ‘master-plot’ of elegy; denouement often involves the lover rejecting the beloved and moving on
conflict with lover
“You’re welcome to toga-love and a basket-laden strumpet
instead of Servius’ daughter Sulpicia.” (3.16)
conflict with over-protective guardian
“Messalla, you worry too much about me. Stay put now.
Journeys, kinsman, are often ill-timed.” (3.14)
conflict with society
“But I’m glad to sin and tired of wearing reputation’s
mask. The world shall know I’ve met my match.” (3.13)
Essential conflict at the heart of all elegy is the conflict between lover and beloved
Poet’s conflict with self also key
Conflict with expectations of society
Two overarching story-arcs that shape narrative:
Battle to find and keep love
Battle to tell that story in elegiac form
relationship with mother
“And the anxious mother tells her daughter what to pray for, but she, now grown-up, silently asks for something else.” (3.12)
relationship with a friend
“Put away fear, Cerinthus. God will not hurt lovers.
Only keep loving: your girl is safe.
No call for weeping. You had better save your tears
for times, if any, when she’s angry with you.” (3.10)
relationship with reader
“Venus has kept her promise. My joys can be the talk
of all who are said to have none of their own.” (3.13)
Embedded stories (including incidental ones) focus on other relationships: friends, rivals, patrons, relatives, pimps, brothel madams, deities
NB other characters are seldom as fully characterised as the poet (even lovers less significant than prominence of their name suggests)
Emphasis on the relationship between the narrator and narratee
Temporality of existence
“That dreary journey’s lifted, you know, from your girl’s heart.
Now she can be in Rome for her birthday.
Let the day that chance brings you unexpectedly
be spent as a birthday by us all.” (3.15)
the first of March
“Great Mars, on your Kalends Sulpicia’s dressed for you;
if you’re wise, you’ll come from heaven to see her.
Venus will pardon it. But, forceful though you are,
don’t drop your guard in ignominious wonder.” (3.8)
“Let me no more, my light, be loved as fervently
by you as I seem to have been a few days past,
if in all my youth I committed any folly
which I should own I more regretted
than leaving you alone yesterday night
from a wish to keep my passion secret.” (3.18)
Temporality of existence
Despite disordered chronology, the poems create story arc
Development of relationship: courtship and seduction (3.9); mutual attraction (3.11); sexual consummation (3.13); jealously and regret (3.16-18)
Sulpicia’s increasing maturity: innocent girl protected by anxious mother (3.12); more confident woman tired of wearing reputation’s mask (3.13) and of over-bearing guardian (3.14); experienced woman who looks back at her youthful follies with regret (3.18)
Frequent temporal markers in elegy create impression of action occurring in and over time
Units of narrative
Primary unit: elegiac couplet
Each elegiac couplet can tell both its own short story and a fragment of a larger one
Secondary unit: individual elegy
A single poem can be read as its own short story or as a discrete chapter within a larger story
Tertiary unit: book
Single elegies or episodes, even if not connected by chronology or continuity of action, can be connected by characters or voice
Quaternary unit: genre
Individual elegies or collections can be seen as part of ‘master-plot’ of elegy
Bal, M. (1997)
Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative
Brooks, P. (1984) R
eading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative
Genette, G. (1982)
Narrative Discourse. An Essay in Method
. Ithaca, NY.
Ricoeur, P. (1984)
Time and Narrative
. Trans. K. Blamey and D. Pellauer. Chicago, IL.
Ryan, M-L. (2007) ‘Towards a Definition of Narrative’ in D. Herman, ed.
The Cambridge Companion to Narrative
. Cambridge. 22-35.
Veyne, P. (1988)
Roman Erotic Elegy: Love, Poetry, and the West
. Trans. D. Pellauer. Chicago.