English Literature
Elegiac Couplet

Elegiac Couplet

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The Influence of Elegiac Couplets in Poetry

Elegiac couplets have a rich history and can be found in various forms of poetry, making them a significant aspect of English literature. This unique form of poetry has its roots in ancient Greece and Rome and has evolved over time to become a popular choice for poets.

Definition of Elegiac Couplets

Elegiac couplets originated in ancient Greece and Rome and consist of two lines of poetry written in a dactylic hexameter and a dactylic pentameter. These couplets have a distinct structure which will be explained further in the following sections.

Greek Elegiac Couplets

The elegiac couplet has a long history, dating back to ancient Greece where it was primarily used for funeral songs. However, in the 7th century BC, it gained popularity as a form for writing love poems. As this form became more widely used, it began to explore different themes such as politics, war, social change, and philosophy. During the Hellenistic period, the Alexandrine School produced many notable Greek elegiac couplets.

Catullus and Roman Elegiac Poetry

The influence of elegiac couplets in Greece carried over to Italian literature, where it was utilized by prominent figures in the Roman Empire. One of these figures was Catullus, a Roman poet known for his extensive use of elegiac couplets in his work. Another notable poet who wrote in this form was Ovid, with his work "Amores" (16 BC) entirely composed of elegiac couplets.

English Elegiac Couplets

The entry of elegiac couplets into English literature occurred during the medieval era when Latin works were being translated. Renowned poets like John Milton also utilized them in their work, including elegiac sonnets throughout their lifetime.

Examples of Elegiac Couplets

Ancient Greek and Roman literary works such as Virgil's "The Aeneid" (16 BC) and Ovid's "Amores" (17 BC) contain elegiac sonnets, highlighting their prominence in poetry.

Features of Elegiac Couplets

The defining features of elegiac couplets include the number of lines, meter, and rhyme scheme.

Number of Lines

Elegiac couplets consist of two sequential lines, with the second line following the first. These couplets can also be found within longer poems, maintaining a connection. For example:

  • Ovid, "Amores: Book 1 Elegy 1 The Theme of Love" (16 BC)
  • Just now, I was preparing to start with heavy fighting and violent war,
  • with a measure to fit the matter.
  • Good enough for lesser verse - laughed Cupid
  • so they say, and stole a foot away.

In this extract, there are two elegiac couplets, with lines 1 and 2 comprising the first, and lines 3 and 4 creating the second.


The most distinctive feature of elegiac couplets is their meter, with two different meters used - dactylic hexameter and dactylic pentameter.

Dactylic Hexameter

This meter was popular in ancient Greece and was primarily used for epic poetry. A line in dactylic hexameter consists of six metrical feet, with the first five being dactyls and the sixth being an anceps, which can be either a spondee or a long and short syllable. A line in dactylic hexameter follows this pattern:- UU / - UU / - UU / - UU / - UU / - U

In the original Latin verse of Ovid's "Amores," this pattern is more apparent:Ar ma gravi numero violentaque bella parabam- UU / - UU / - UU / - UU / - UU / - U

In English, this translates to:Just now, I was preparing to start with heavy fighting.

Dactylic Pentameter

The second line of an elegiac couplet is written in dactylic pentameter, which is similar to dactylic hexameter. A line of dactylic pentameter is divided into two, with each part consisting of two dactyls and a spondee, following the pattern of:- UU / - UU / - UU.

Spondees are divided into two parts, with the first part being repeated in the second.

In conclusion, elegiac couplets have a rich history and continue to influence poetry. From their origins in ancient Greece and Rome to their presence in English literature, this form remains a prominent choice for poets.

The Unique Structure of Elegiac Couplets in Ovid's 'Amores'

Ovid's 'Amores' showcases the beauty and complexity of elegiac couplets, a poetic form that has been appreciated for centuries. In this form, the first line is written in dactylic hexameter, followed by a shorter second line in dactylic pentameter. This contrast creates a pleasing rhythm and dynamic effect.

Rhyme Scheme

Unlike other poetic forms, elegiac couplets do not have a specific rhyme scheme. This allows for more freedom and flexibility in writing as poets can choose to use rhyming words or leave out rhyming altogether.

Open vs. Closed Elegiac Couplets

There are two types of elegiac couplets: open and closed. In an open elegiac couplet, the first line flows smoothly into the second without any punctuation, creating a continuous flow. For example, in Ovid's 'Amores', Cupid is described as 'a mischievous boy who laughed and stole a foot away' from the poet.

A closed elegiac couplet, on the other hand, has distinct punctuation at the end of each line, creating a pause and separating the two lines. Ovid uses this technique in 'Amores' when he writes, 'Cruel boy, who gave you power over this song? Poets are the Muses - we’re not in your crowd.'

The Key Differences

Elegiac couplets have a few key differences from their more famous counterpart, heroic couplets:

  • Elegiac couplets have two lines, while heroic couplets have four lines.
  • The meter in the first line of an elegiac couplet is dactylic hexameter, while the first line of a heroic couplet is written in iambic pentameter.
  • The meter in the second line of an elegiac couplet is dactylic pentameter, while the second line of a heroic couplet is also written in iambic pentameter.
  • Heroic couplets have a set rhyme scheme, while elegiac couplets do not have a specific rhyme scheme.

In Conclusion

Elegiac couplets are a unique and beautiful form of poetry, admired for their structure and meter. They provide versatility in expression and themes for writers. So the next time you encounter an elegiac couplet in literature, take a moment to appreciate its beauty and complexity.

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