In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek Poetry: Elegiac and Lyric

  • Introduction
  • Elegiac Poetry
  • Lyric Poetry
  • Bibliographies
  • Companions
  • Journals
  • Modern Anthologies
  • Translations
  • Studies of Elegy
  • Studies of Lyric

Classics Greek Poetry: Elegiac and Lyric
Ian Rutherford
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0048


Although the best-known genres are epic and drama, most Greek poetry took the form of shorter works performed by soloists or choruses in any of a variety of meters. Since performance was usually accompanied by music, the term “songs” is often more appropriate than “poems”: ancient Greece of the Archaic period was a “song culture.” These shorter forms are conventionally divided into lyric, elegy, and iambos by modern scholars. This entry deals only with elegy and lyric.

Elegiac Poetry

Like other ancient Greek generic terms, “elegy” is difficult to define; the best recent attempts are West 1974 and Bowie 1986. A key characteristic is a metrical structure comprising a sequence of elegiac couplets, an elegiac couplet consisting of a dactylic hexameter followed by a pentameter (an “elegeion” in Greek terminology). The fact that the metrical scheme included a hexameter line allowed for the use of epic vocabulary and may well have influenced the development of the genre: it was different enough from epic to allow for the expression of personal themes, but close enough to discourage the use of undignified subject matter (contrast the iambos). Elegiac meter came to be the most commonly used one for epigrams, short poems intended to be inscribed somewhere. Performance of elegy seems to have been sung and to accompaniment of the aulos (a kind of flute). The length of elegies varied from a few lines to a hundred or more. Performance context and function varied, and it seems likely that there were several different subgenres. A common feature seems to be a speech situation in which the singer or speaking subject addresses an audience on a certain state of affairs (West 1974): an army, a city, a political faction, a friend. The symposion (drinking party) is a particularly common scenario for the performance of such poems. Some elegies may have had a narrative function; this was first argued by Bowie 1986, and confirmation seemed to be found in the discovery of the Plataia poem of Simonides (see Simonides). Other elegies may have been associated with lament, ultimately the origin of the modern sense of “elegy,” although it is a mistake to generalize this for ancient Greek elegy. The funerary epigram may have been a factor here. The classic study of this is Page 1936.

  • Bowie, E.L. 1986. Early Greek elegy, symposium, and public festival. Journal of Hellenic Studies 106:13–35.

    DOI: 10.2307/629640

    The standard treatment of the issue of narrative elegy.

  • Page, D. L. 1936. The elegiacs in Euripides’ Andromache. In Greek poetry and life: Essays presented to Gilbert Murray. Edited by Cyril Bailey, 206–230. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Clear statement of the hypothesis that there is a lost tradition of archaic lamentary elegy.

  • West, M. L. 1974. Studies in Greek elegy and iambus. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    Fundamental study of Greek elegy by the world’s leading expert in the field. See especially pp. 1–39.

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