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Elegy and Epic in the Aeneid

Deborah Beck

This paper focuses on how the range of literary genres that underlie Vergil’s Aeneid affects various facets of a reader’s experience of the poem. Using the antecedents of the simile comparing the dying Euryalus to a drooping flower at Aen. 9.435-37 as a springboard, the paper explores the ways that different poetic genres contribute to the depiction of the epic genre in the Aeneid.

At the level of this particular simile, the elegiac notes in the Nisus and Euryalus episode provide a complement to the varied literary genres of the allusions Vergil draws on for the simile itself, which include Homeric epic (Iliad 8.306-307), Greek lyric (Stesichorus SLG S 15 col. ii 12-17), and Latin lyric (Catullus 11.21-24 and 62.39-40; see especially Hardie 1994: 29-34 and ad loc.). The simile’s central motif of a drooping flower is at home, in different ways, in all of the various genres to which it alludes: in the Iliad, the clearest parallel for our passage, the death of a minor character in battle gains a momentary and universalizing poignancy from this comparison, whereas in Catullus 11, the flower caps a brief meditation on the narrator’s faithless lover, who gives rise to a very different kind of sorrow. These antecedents both draw in the reader intellectually by presenting a particularly complex set of allusions to figure out, and also give the image itself a stronger emotional force because of the many different kinds of deep emotions that it evokes through its various antecedents. This feature of the simile offers a microcosm of a key aspect of the entire Aeneid: the broad range of genres that Vergil weaves into the poem helps to give it the scope and magnitude that defines the epic genre.

Existing work on elegy, in both this simile and the poem overall, invites further consideration of how a reader interprets and experiences these antecedents at various levels of detail. Previous studies have shown how the references in this simile depict the emotions of both Nisus and Euryalus at the moment of Euryalus’ death (e.g. Lyne 1987: 228-30, who notes that “death naturally prompts thoughts of love in elegy, not in the epic” [229]). Important analyses of the various genres in this passage have focused primarily
on identifying them (e.g. Hardie 1994 cited above and Griffith 1985; see also Pavlock 1985). Studies of elegiac elements in the Aeneid have tended to feature Dido in particular (e.g. Saylor 1986, Cairns 1989: 129-50); these works devote the bulk of their attention to tracing the elegiac underpinnings of how Vergil tells Dido’s tale. This paper will build
on such studies by exploring how elegy in the Aeneid interacts with other genres and antecedents, and how a reader might experience these various allusions.

Studies of elegiac references in the Aeneid either pass over or mention very briefly (e.g. Cairns 1989: 150) how elegy mingles with other genres to shape the reader’s understanding of the poem. On the one hand, the range of literary genres in an individual simile and in the Aeneid overall have basically similar effects: to draw in the reader not only intellectually, by offering an engaging intertextual puzzle to sort through, but also emotionally, by means of both the act of interpretation itself (e.g. Iser 1974, Tannen 1989) and the feelings that these allusions help to depict. At the same time, these allusions have an additional, cumulative effect in the poem overall: they extend the scope and grandeur of the epic poem, generically speaking, beyond the strict boundaries of the epic genre by incorporating so many other genres into Vergil’s epic poem.

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Vergil, Elegy, and Epigram

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