Subjecting Verses: Latin Erotic Elegy and the Emergence of the Real

Subjecting Verses: Latin Erotic Elegy and the Emergence of the Real

Subjecting Verses: Latin Erotic Elegy and the Emergence of the Real

Subjecting Verses: Latin Erotic Elegy and the Emergence of the Real


The elegy flared into existence, commanded the cultural stage for several decades, then went extinct. This book accounts for the swift rise and sudden decline of a genre whose life span was incredibly brief relative to its impact. Examining every major poet from Catullus to Ovid, Subjecting Verses presents the first comprehensive history of Latin erotic elegy since Georg Luck's.

Paul Allen Miller harmoniously weds close readings of the poetry with insights from theoreticians as diverse as Jameson, Foucault, Lacan, and Zizek. In welcome contrast to previous, thematic studies of elegy--efforts that have become bogged down in determining whether particular themes and poets were pro- or anti-Augustan--Miller offers a new, "symptomatic" history. He asks two obvious but rarely posed questions: what historical conditions were necessary to produce elegy, and what provoked its decline? Ultimately, he argues that elegiac poetry arose from a fundamental split in the nature of subjectivity that occurred in the late first century--a split symptomatic of the historical changes taking place at the time.

Subjecting Verses is a major interpretive feat whose influence will reach across classics and literary studies. Linking the rise of elegy with changes in how Romans imagined themselves within a rapidly changing society, it offers a new model of literary theory that neither reduces the poems to a reflection of their context nor examines them in a vacuum.


It seems to me rather that we have to look at failures of
form, the impossibility of certain kinds of representation
in a certain context, the flaws, limits, obstacles, which
become the clue to the social truth or social meaning.
—Jameson 1998: 361

It can often be the emphasis on the impossibility of
representation that gives the clue and organizes things.
—Jameson 1998: 369

The purpose of this book is to provide a history or genealogy of the Latin love elegy. That history is problematic and demands a more comprehensive explanation in part because it is so short. Many books have already treated the form, and in recent years several have offered exciting and sophisticated readings of its rhetoric and modes of characterization (Greene 1998; Kennedy 1993; Veyne 1988), but none has offered a convincing exegesis of this subgenre’s sudden flaring into existence and its just as sudden extinction. Indeed, most treatments have largely eschewed historical modes of reading, except for now outdated forays into the uncertain terrain of biographical criticism.

Latin love elegy first comes to light in the last years of Catullus’s life, around 56 B.C.E. It effectively disappears with Ovid’s death in exile in 17 C.E. Seventy-three years may not seem short by the standards of popular culture, but it is only a blink of the eye compared with the life-spans enjoyed by genres such as epic (Ennius to Statius) and verse satire (Lucilius to Juvenal) in the Roman world, or the sonnet sequence (Petrarch to Shakespeare and beyond) and the novel (Cervantes to the present) in modern times. Nonetheless, even this rather limited chronology is overgenerous. Catullus is generally considered a precursor of elegy rather than an elegist in his own right. Ovid’s exilic poetry shares with erotic elegy only meter, subject position, and allusions to the conventions defining the form. His beloved in exile is Rome, not some coy mistress. If we limit ourselves to the period between the appearance of Gallus’s first book of elegies, generally considered the first complete exemplar of the genre . . .

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