Adele, the Grammy-award winning singer behind the album 25, is a modern musician whose work mirrors the ancient genre of Roman elegaic poetry. In the same way that Latin elegy is characterized by an emphasis on love and relationships, Adele’s songs focus on the nature of love and relationships almost exclusively. Many other modern singers explore love as well and might also be called modern elegists, but Adele earns that description because her work in its examination of love recalls the language, tropes, and style of Roman elegy to a remarkable extent.
A highly influential yet short-lived genre that lasted from the mid-1st century BCE until the early 1st century CE, Latin elegy deals with a wide range of scenarios involving love and relationships, from Catullus’ affair with Lesbia, who eventually betrays him, to Propertius’ rejection by Cynthia. Tibullus portrays himself as a desperate drunk who does everything he can to get together with the object of his love, Delia, and imagines a peaceful life in the country with her. Ovid in his tongue-in-cheek Ars Amatoria teaches his readers how to pick up women in the urban setting of Rome, and Sulpicia, the only female writer of Latin poetry whose works we still have, reflects on her relationship with Cerinthus.
Adele does the same by placing herself into the role of various narrators (who may or may not represent the “real” Adele) and exploring the emotions of the situation. She is an ex-lover, hoping to reconnect with an old boyfriend, in the songs “Hello” and “Someone Like You.” She is a lover who asks for one final night, in “All I Ask.” She happily escapes from a relationship in “Send My Love (to Your New Lover)” and seeks vengeance against a man who betrayed her in “Rolling in the Deep.” All these songs, and many others by Adele, focus on the nature of love and relationships, just like the Latin elegists.
Besides a focus on love and relationships, Latin elegy can also be defined by a number of secondary characteristics rooted in the specific context of Roman culture and society. For example, elegy portrays relationships that exist solely for love and passion, which clashed against the moral reforms of Emperor Augustus, who wanted to restore traditional values regarding sex, adultery, and marriage. By envisioning a new conception of sexual relationships that did not align with the emperor’s politics, elegy became a transgressive genre that opposed mainstream ways of thinking. It is commonly thought that the subversiveness of Ovid’s work led to his banishment by the emperor in 8 CE.
Does a modern elegist therefore have to be political or subversive? No, not necessarily, because not all of ancient elegy was; however, Latin elegy almost always concerns love, so any modern elegist must deal with that same topic too. It is on the basis of this main characteristic of elegy that I call Adele a “modern elegaic poet,” not any of the secondary traits.
Adele draws upon the same sort of language to describe love as the Roman elegists did. For instance, using a familiar metaphor that comes down to us from Latin elegy, she refers to the heart as the seat of emotions and feelings. Fire and heat stand for intense emotions, from passionate love to extreme anger. Warmth is a sign of love and comfort, and the cold represents isolation and abandonment. In our modern discourse of love, these images and ideas of elegy have become extremely common, and as many other musicians do, Adele incorporates them into her songs.
But one particular trope of Roman elegy which Adele makes excellent use of is the exclusus amator, or the “excluded lover,” a description applied to a lover who is denied access to his mistress. This restricted access is often symbolized by a door, a physical barrier preventing the lover from getting to his mistress. The lover’s lament outside the door is often called a paraclausithyron, a Greek term meaning “outside/beside the closed door.” Here is one example from Tibullus when he writes about his lover, Delia:
A savage guardianship has been placed over my girl,
and the firm door has been closed with a heavy bar.
Door of a difficult master, may the rain strike you,
may the lightning thrown by the power of Jupiter seek you.
Door, defeated by my prayers, may you open for me alone,
and, in secret, make no noises as the hinge turns.
— Tibullus 1.2.5–10 (my own translation from Latin)
Tibullus addresses the door directly, cursing and threatening it, before begging it to open. The amator laments his separation from his mistress, by focusing on the barrier before him, but the door is really a metaphor for a deeper issue: that the home of his lover is the house of another man, the “difficult master,” possibly Delia’s husband, who is watching over his wife and preventing Tibullus from seeing her. Thus, the exclusus amator trope involves barriers of all kinds, from the presence of other rivals, to the amator’s rejection by the object of his love (see Propertius’ rejection by Cynthia, as indicated by his unhappiness with “chaste girls” at 1.1.5), not just the physical barrier of the door.
Adele, in the first track on 25, “Hello,” gives the exclusus amator trope a twist by focusing not on a closed door but on an unanswered phone as the fittingly modern symbol of denied love. In the chorus, she sings, “Hello from the other side,” that is, the other side of the phone line, the other side of the pond (from California to England), or metaphorically, the other side of the divisions which have separated Adele from her ex-lover. This statement not only fits the context of a long-distance phone call but also recalls the lover’s paraclausithyron from the other side of a door.
Adele then switches to, “Hello from the outside,” which even more clearly describes her as an excluded lover, locked out from any possibility of repairing this old relationship as her ex-boyfriend refuses to answer the phone: “When I call, you never seem to be home.”
One barrier that Adele uniquely emphasizes (which I have not seen in the work of the ancient elegists) is the long period of time that has passed since the relationship, back “when we were younger and free.” So much time has gone by that her old boyfriend is no longer “torn apart” by memories of the break-up, meaning that he has no reason to rebuild their relationship. Time has healed him, but she hasn’t “done much healing” — that is, she still values her feelings for him and agonizes over the details of the break-up, yet he no longer cares about any of that. The passage of time becomes a barrier that prevents Adele from reconnecting with her ex-lover.
Adele also deals with the passage of time as a barrier for the amator exclusa in “Someone Like You,” from 21. Years have gone by, as she notes in the line “You know how the time flies,” and when she returns to see her ex-lover again, he has moved on: He’s “found a girl and married now” and his “dreams came true” because “she gave you things I didn’t give to you.” The momentum of life as people move on and the ordinary passage of time means she will never reunite with this lover and will have to settle for “someone like you.”
Although the lyrics do not mention a door, within the context of the song, we might imagine Adele returning to her hometown and turning up (“I hate to turn up out of the blue, uninvited”) outside the door of her ex-lover; however, he no longer has any desire to see her: “Old friend, why are you so shy? / Ain’t like you to hold back or hide from the light.”
In dealing with the exclusus amator trope, Adele often uses the same type of language as the Latin elegists by referring to a door as a barrier. “Rolling in the Deep,” from 21, plays with the exclusus amator trope by reversing it. Angrily seeking vengeance for a lover’s betrayal, Adele sings, “Throw your soul through every open door.” Adele imagines her ex-lover trying to find safety with his other lovers (reminding us of his cheating nature, like when Catullus in poem 11 says that Lesbia has “three hundred adulterers”) by entering through their doors, but her anger has no limits and will catch up with him. The implication is that no door or other barrier can keep her from achieving her revenge.
In “All I Ask,” about the final night that a couple spends together before the break-up that both know is coming, Adele sings, “I will leave my heart at the door.” Here, Adele purposely creates an emotional barrier between her and her lover by leaving her heart, representing her emotions, outside the door. She has to do this, because otherwise her emotions will keep her from doing what needs to be done and ending the relationship. Also, she does not want to form further emotional attachments (or make her lover think she is) based on this last night: they are only playing “pretend,” she says.
Although it is not possible to discuss all her music here, from this overview of Adele’s songs, it is evident that her work focuses extensively on the same issues of love and relationships that concerned the Latin elegists of Rome. Adele’s explorations of love parallel Latin elegaic poetry in many ways, especially her use in a modern context of the exclusus amator trope, which shows that the style and language of the Roman elegists remains remarkably influential today.
- Latin Erotic Elegy: An anthology and reader. Edited by Paul Allen Miller. Routledge, 2002.
Originally published on Medium by Brian Le on March 27, 2017.