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  • Lost and Found VoicesPropertius 3.6
  • Kathleen McCarthy (bio)


Latin elegy stakes its claim to attention on the persistent intermeshing of the individual voice and its social context, the constant pressure applied by external circumstances on the Ego’s desires, and the equally constant ardor with which he responds. Although elegy shares with lyric (and other first-person genres) the preference for poems that represent a fragment of social speech addressed to a specific individual, in elegy this format is elaborated in ways that give weight (and a sense of reality) to the others who inhabit this world, without losing its primary commitment to expressing the feelings of the speaker.

Elegy accomplishes this feat through narrativity, that is, through the incorporation of elements that have the effect of telling a story and thus creating a storyworld. Elegy’s difference from lyric in this respect is, of course, relative not absolute. Horace’s Odes certainly create a world from which the poems seem to issue, but this world is a virtual world, a mixture of, for example, contemporary Rome and archaic Lesbos, a world that can exist nowhere except in the meeting between the text and the mind of the reader. Elegy, by contrast, takes as the asymptote it approaches not a re-creation of sympotic song but the speech of everyday life, with a preference for the passionate outbursts that occur in situations of strife or desperation. In addition to playing down its identity as song, elegy maximizes the effect of the storyworld by repeating characters and situations from poem to poem, thus creating one of the key components of narrative, temporality, since we see these characters at different moments in their lives (even if we usually cannot determine which moments come before others). The term ‘story,’ as it is specifically defined in narrative theory, refers to the reader’s perception that a set of events seems logically to precede any telling of those events that we get in a poem or novel or play, that is, the feeling we have that the world described in a text exists apart from and before the words that describe it.1 It is just this sense of ‘story’ which is more robust in elegy than in lyric, and which gives to the genre its distinctive qualities. [End Page 153]

The development of ‘story’ as it is created from poem to poem across an elegiac corpus has been recognized for some time. What I would like to attempt here is a slightly different kind of investigation: focusing on narrative within an individual poem. It is my hope that this approach will shed a different kind of light on the role of narrativity in elegy and particularly how narrativity contributes to elegy’s most characteristic effects.

The kind of narrativity elegy usually exhibits falls into the category that Seymour Chatman has called “nonnarrated stories” (1978, 166–95, esp. 173–8), that is, “narratives purporting to be untouched transcripts of characters’ behavior” (1978, 166).2 The primary characteristic of such narratives is that they are mimetic rather than diegetic, representing events in the storyworld by reproducing them rather than recounting them. This mimesis is what I referred to above in noting that both elegy and lyric typically offer fragments of social speech addressed to specific interlocutors; from these fragments, the reader deduces the setting and the events that have led up to this moment. For the sake of clarity in what follows, I will refer to this kind of mimetic narrative as ‘enactment,’ and distinguish it from ‘narrative,’ which will mean here strictly diegetic accounts. While accepting that enactment is the norm in elegy, I still think it useful to explore those rare moments when the genre does perform real diegetic narrative.3

My premise here is that what distinguishes these two modes is the way each configures the relation between the moment of speech represented in the poem and the scene described: enacted poetry, which presents itself as social speech, embeds the act of telling within the tale itself—it tells its story from within a moment in the ‘story,’ while narrative poetry has the option of narrating from a different time...


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pp. 153-186
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