I am looking for examples in ancient literature with conflict between form and content. I believe such conflict is typically satirical, but there may be other reasons as well. I would like to know in which form this phenomenon existed in antiquity, if at all. For modern examples, consider Tom Lehrer's "When you are old and gray" (love song by form but not exactly by content) and "A Christmas Carol" (which does not quite share the usual Christmas carol spirit despite form).

Where in ancient Roman literature is the conflict between form and content at its largest? Why would you argue so? This is a matter of opinion, of course, but I am confident that there are good examples out there. I have decided not to define what I mean by "form". It could mean a poetic meter but it could also mean other aspects or circumstances of performance.


  • Tom Lehrer is just an example, and it is not important that the ancient text be like his songs — I just thought mentioning him might get my point across to those who happen to know him.
  • If you feel the question is too broad, or otherwise bad, let me know. I am trying a new type of question and I am unsure how to phrase it.
  • 2
    In classical verse, the lament for a pet sparrow is neatly incongruous: 'Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque, // Passer mortuus est ...meae puellae.'
    – Hugh
    Commented Sep 20, 2016 at 22:26
  • @Hugh, in what sense is that incongruous? I can guess, but I want to make sure I understand.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 7:40
  • 1
    Of course when a family pet dies there is real grief. This little songbird's death is being marked by a a full OTT Threnody, a poetic masterpiece, which is an invocation to all Venuses and all cupids to come and mourn. What gives the game away is that also (et) all lovers are called to share in the event, 'et quant' est hominum venustiorum.'
    – Hugh
    Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 14:21

1 Answer 1


Aestuans intrinsecus...

is a set of fifty couplets by a medieval (1160) poet which purports to be a heart-felt confession but is in fact a boast to his patron. (Is he asking for forgiveness or permission veniam?) Since his patron was an Archdeacon as well as an Arch-Duke, the poet became known as the Arch-Poet, and his poetry is exceptionally well-crafted (like Lehrer's).

Praesul discretissime, veniam te precor, [verse 6]
morte bona morior, dulci nece necor,
meum pectus sauciat puellarum decor,
et quas tactu nequeo, saltem corde moechor.

Most exceptional Archdeacon, I beseech your forgiveness;
I die the good death, I am slain by sweet slaughter,
I am smitten in the breast by the beauty of women;
and whom I cannot by touch, in my heart at least I take.

It's slick, it's mischievous, it is Oh so innocent. Read the rest on John Whelpton’s site:

  • 6
    "Take" is a very demure translation for moechor :)
    – TKR
    Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 0:43

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