Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.34

M.L. Gasparov, A History of European Versification, translated by G.S. Smith and Marina Tarlinskaja. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. $72.00. ISBN 0-19-815879-3.

Reviewed by James W. Halporn, Indiana/Harvard University.

This work of Mikhail Leonovich Gasparov, a Russian classicist and a world-renowned authority on Russian metrics, was originally published as Ocherk istorii evropeiskogo stikha in 1989. It is an ambitious book, but it is not clear who the intended audience is. I think this needs to be said immediately, since it seems too detailed and complicated for beginners and yet for those who are professionally involved with any of the languages discussed, it lacks any stance towards current research. This is especially apparent in the bibliography, which by and large ends with works published in the 1970s.1

The first chapter is perhaps the most interesting. It offers a brief but clear discussion of verse and systems of versification, makes a few remarks on comparative metrics, and concludes with observations on hypothetical Indo-European verse. Much of this material is already available to the English reader, however, in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Princeton, 1993, with more current bibliography.2

The following chapters range widely. As an overview, I offer his chapter headings: Slavonic and Baltic Folk Syllabic and Tonic Verse; Germanic Tonic Verse (with a digression on Celtic Alliterative Syllabic Verse); Ancient Greek Syllabo-Metrical Verse; Greek and Latin Quantitative Metre; Greek and Latin Medieval Syllabic Verse; Romance Syllabic Verse; The Rise of Germanic Syllabo-Tonic Verse; Slavonic Literary Syllabic Verse; The Expansion of Syllabo-Tonic Verse; International Free Verse. In his Preface, the author notes that Scandinavian, Netherlandish and Portuguese versification are only mentioned in passing; the section on Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian Syllabic, Syllabo-Tonic, and Syllabo-Metrical Verse was written by M. Yu. Lotman.3 There is no discussion of Indo-European languages outside Europe.

Since this is intended as a review for a classical review journal, and I have no knowledge of the other fields discussed, the rest of this review will focus on the chapters involved with ancient Greek and Latin versification. What is especially odd is that in a history of this versification, only a few periods and styles are discussed. The archaic and Hellenistic periods of Greek literature are overlooked4 and, with the exception of the Naevius (several of his Saturnians are quoted) and Plautus, no mention is made of Latin literature outside of the classical writers Vergil, Horace and Ovid. There are, then, curious omissions. Although he cites the elegiac distichs of Ovid, Gasparov never mentions that elegiac distichs were written in Greece from early on and that Latin hexameters were written before and after Vergil. Greek choral lyric is given short shrift, on the grounds that we do not have the music.

The English translators and editors have been careless in their handling of terms as well. There is an annoying hesitation between Aeolis, Aeolian,5 and Aeolic, in discussing the metrics and dialect of the Lesbian poets. In trying to establish the connections between Sanskrit syllabo-metrical verse and that of the Lesbian poets, Gasparov correctly notes the development of these extant verse-forms from Common Indo-European meters. But the general schemes of these meters show an obligatory cadence of short and arbitrary (i.e., anceps) positions at line-end. Unfortunately in one of the actual examples of the anustubh from the Rigveda, the third line he cites ends in two heavy syllables (i.e., a cadence of two long positions) (52).

The Aeolic meters are presented in the arrangement suggested by Meillet, but the examples of internal and external expansion are presented to the reader in the forms of bad accentual English equivalents. This mixture of the technical with the elementary is most jarring. The Aeolic stanza forms are entirely attributed to Horace, and texts and translations of several of his odes are offered (the translations are the usual feeble attempts of English poets to imitate classical meters). Among kata stichon forms of syllabo- metrical verse the phalacean is represented by Catullus 1 (not numbered in the text) and the Anacreontic by 395 PMG (not numbered). Gasparov suggests that the Anacreontic is a trochaic verse with a "dissyllabic unstressed opening" (?). He regards the explanation of other metricians, that it derives from Ionic measure as "rather more strained." Unfortunately for him, had he quoted beyond the fourth line of this poem of Anacreon, he would have found that the fifth line consists of an Ionic dimeter (as does line 11). He neglects to mention, of course, that this Anacreontic colon "is frequent in the ionics of tragedy."6

The discussion of choral and dramatic stanzas is limited to one passage from Sophocles, Electra 1384-90 = 1391-1397 (he does not cite the line numbers). Unfortunately for his argument, these verses are not in syllabo-metrical verse at all, but are iambic verse with a dochmiac colarion.7

In the opening of his chapter on Greek and Latin quantitative verse, Gasparov notes that the iamb, trochee,8 and anapaest are measured in dipodies (67). This is surely incorrect: the Greek iambic metron is not two iambic feet, but a four-position unit consisting of an initial anceps position, followed by an alternation of long and short positions; the trochee is also a four-position unit, with the last position being anceps. Latin comic verse, both iambic and trochaic, shows a two-position unit, anceps and long (except for the final unit which always alternates short and long). In fact, the notion of the dipody is a misunderstanding, which it is a shame to propagate any longer.

The author does, however, make clear the important distinction between "rhythmicians" (or "musicians") and "metrists" in antiquity, and the dangers still presented in some textbooks by lack of distinction between these two approaches to classical versification. Gasparov rightly comes down on the side of the "metrists" in this book (67-68).

After a brief digression on the Latin Saturnian, which he views as a transitional verse-form between pre-quantitative and quantitative versification, a sort of "Italic metricized tonic verse,"9 he goes on to discuss the classical dactylic hexameter. He notes, in references to the caesura in the hexameter that in Latin the masculine caesura (after the marked position of the third foot), in Greek, the feminine caesura (after the first short of the third foot biceps) was increasingly preferred. Where Latin had a feminine caesura, this was "compensate[d] for ... by locating masculine word boundaries in both adjacent feet" (72). This is true, but the example he gives is not the clearest.10 His longer example of the Latin hexameter, Vergil Aeneid 12.945ff., does not mark the elisions, nor is his ratio of spondees to dactyls in two-variant feet correct (73f.).11

The discussion of the iambic trimeter (= Latin comic senarius) is vitiated by the notion that the Greek iamb is a dipody. This results in his inability to define Porson's Law properly (75).12 The examples of the Greek trimeter are taken from Sophocles Oedipus R. 1-5 and Aristophanes Frogs 1-9, with no examples from Latin comedy. Conversely, the only examples of the trochaic tetrameter (septenarius) are taken from Latin poets. Gasparov quotes two lines of the form called the "versus quadratus," but fails to note that they are so called because they show three stresses in each half line. The lines of the Pervigilium Veneris (which he dates to the fourth century CE, without any reference) cited are not an imitation of the "versus quadratus" as the stresses make clear (78). In the Latin example of the comic septenarius the citation (not in the text) is Curculio 280-287. These are not "disturbed" tetrameters, whatever that means, but the usual run of servus currens lines. It would have been helpful if the editors had noted somewhere that the bold-face type was used here to indicate the marked half of the feet (not, as he remarks on pg. xvii, to indicate stressed syllables) and that the acute accent marks indicate hiatus or other odd features of scansion.13

The elegiac distich cited (no reference) is from Ovid Amores 1.9.1-2, with a bit of odd reasoning for why the second half of the pentameter (hemiepes|hemiepes) does not allow condensed bicipitia (80). The only epodic form discussed (81) is Horace Epode 2.1-4 (3ia|2ia). The reader of this book would never know that today one of the most famous epodic forms is the Cologne Epode of Archilochus (196a W.), with a three-line stanza, 3ia|hemiepes|2ia.14 Gasparov concludes this section with some lines showing the use of the iambic dimeter kata stichon. Unfortunately, the hymn of Ambrose he cites is not definitely by him.15 He also neglects to mention that each of the hymns of Ambrose consists of eight four-line stanzas. Thus, unlike the epodes of Horace, these poems carry on a musical tradition like the Lesbian monodies and the Odes of Horace, more than the recited forms of kata stichon verse.

The discussion of classical versification ends with an interesting discussion of some of the possible origins of the quantitative forms that have come down to us. Generally, as he states (82), the hypothetical reconstructions depend on whether it can be assumed that trimeters and hexameters existed as entire lines from the beginning, with the caesura a secondary element; or, that shorter segments were combined into long lines, with the caesura marking the joins. He proceeds to lay out the proposals that have been set out for each of the metrical forms, (trochaic) tetrameter, hexameter, and (iambic) trimeter. He does not, however, give any authorities for the various theories proposed.

Finally, he discusses the questions of length and stress in quantitative meters, ending with a rejection of what he calls "a metrists' myth," namely the theory, most strongly held by German scholars, that in Latin in particular, where we know that there was a stress accent ("Penultimate Law"), the marked positions in a line were also stressed in some way (e.g., the diphthong "-ae" in "Troiae" [Aeneid 1.1]). Gasparov sensibly cuts through the whole discussion with the observation that no such stress of marked positions is mentioned by the ancient metricians (87).

Although the book can be commended for its attention to the Indo-European origins of classical verse and its presentation of various theories of the construction of the individual lines and stanzas, it has too many errors and too little annotation to make it of use to scholars who wish to know about Greek and Latin meters. In a time when Oxford has allowed two major studies of Greek meter to go out of print (P. Maas and M.L. West), and there is no serious and detailed account of Latin meter currently available in English,16 these chapters of a lengthy study are no useful substitute.17


1. The English editors have done the author a disservice by their unsatisfactory indices. The subject index oddly does not include many of the meters discussed (e.g., trimeter), and the author index merely lists names of poets and scholars (with their dates!), even those whom the author only mentions in passing. The book sorely needed a list of meters and a glossary.

2. I note the omission (here and elsewhere in the book) of M.L. West, Greek Metre, Oxford: Clarendon P, 1982, and of W.S. Allen, Accent and Rhythm, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973. The editors certainly could have improved on the bibliographies for both of the classical languages.

3. Neither the translators nor the editors take the trouble to identify him.

4. Theocritus is mentioned in passing as having written in a "middle genre", bucolic; the author ignores the Hymns of Callimachus (71).

5. This book would have us believe that there is something called the "Aeolian dialect" in which Sappho and Alcaeus wrote. The term is both old-fashioned and inaccurate.

6. Paul Maas, Greek Metre, trans. H. Lloyd-Jones, Oxford: Clarendon P, 1962, 27. The author of course omits Isyllus' Paean in accordance with his total neglect of Alexandrian poetry (see J.U. Powell's notes, Collectanea Alexandrina, Oxford: Clarendon P, 1925, 135).

7. This should have been obvious to anyone who noted the cases of "Attic correption" (plosive + liquid/nasal do not close the preceding syllable). Furthermore, the text has a notorious difficulty: NEAKO/NHTON (1394) morphologically has a long alpha (despite LSJ s.v.). It can be explained away (see H. Lloyd-Jones and N.G. Wilson, Sophoclea, Oxford: Clarendon P, 1990, 73), but certainly this deserves mention in a book on versification.

8. He cites as alternate names of the trochee: chorus and choreus. Neither of these terms is current in metrical studies.

9. He takes his examples of Saturnians from Naevius Bellum Punicum frgs. 46 and 47 S. (42 and 43 M.), which numbers he does not cite. As they stand in his text, it looks as if Gasparov regards the two fragments as immediately consecutive in the poem, on what grounds I do not know.

10. A clearer example would be Vergil Aeneid 2.3: infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem.

11. What he means, in simpler language, is the first four feet of the hexameters, since the fifth foot is regularly dactylic (trisyllabic), the sixth, disyllabic. The correct ratio in these lines is 18:14, not 18:10.

12. For a proper statement of this "bridge," see Maas, 34-35.

13. In Lindsay's OCT the acute accents in this passage mark only hiatus. Why "nec" in line 284 or the second "nec" in 285 or the "in" of line 284 are marked with acute accents is unclear to me. But then, the reader is never told what editions Gasparov is using. The use of bold-face in the citation from the Iliad on page 73 suffers from the same misuse of this feature.

14. There is no excuse for this omission, for Merkelbach and West published the epode in 1974.

15. W. Bulst, Hymni Latini Antiquissimi LXXV, Psalmi III, Heidelberg: Kerle, 1956, places it in brackets (52).

16. D.S. Raven's handbooks of Greek and Latin meters (now long out of print) are too idiosyncratic; the same can be said of the more scholarly German study of Latin meter by Hans Drexler (Darmstadt: WB, 1967).

17. I want to thank Professor Gregory Nagy (Harvard) for his observations.