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Looking for Reality in Latin Love Elegy

The College of William and Mary in Virginia
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  • Elegy
  • Roman Poetry
  • Literary Theory
  • Psychoanalytic Theory
  • Propertius
  • Sulpicia
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Realism
  • Literature


The genre of Latin love elegy flourished in Augustan Rome. Its poems are characterized by their meter, the elegiac couplet, and their accounts of love affairs. Due to elegy’s frequent use of the first-person voice, scholars have debated whether or not these poems can tell us anything about the real lives of the ancient Romans. In this thesis, I explore how and why we use the language of reality to interpret poetry and if we can recover any ancient reality from our position as contemporary readers. In the first chapter, I analyze the dream in Propertius 2.26a by explaining how Propertius’s fictional life has cropped up in his dreaming life. I argue that the language of reality affords me the possibility of separating different layers of Propertius’s poetic life and positioning myself as a reader outside of his text. In the second chapter, I examine the concept of poetic ‘voice’ as it applies to the ancient elegist Sulpicia and the twentieth-century poet Sylvia Plath. Analyzing Sulpicia 3.13 side by side with “Lady Lazarus,” I find that Sulpician scholarship claiming to find the voice of a Roman woman in Sulpicia’s poetry is misguided. Plath’s voice was been recorded, whereas Sulpicia’s never could have been. Sulpicia offers her poem’s voice to her readers, whereas Plath co-opts the poem’s voice for herself. The voice of Sulpicia 3.13 belongs to the reader and to the work. In conclusion, the language of reality can usefully separate and order different layers of experience in a poem but can make the ancient past seem deceptively like the present.

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