Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.04

Mark W. Edwards, Sound, Sense, and Rhythm: Listening to Greek and Latin Poetry.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2002.  Pp. xi+191.  ISBN 0-691-08666-4.  $39.50.  

Reviewed by Michael W. Haslam, UCLA (
Word count: 2917 words

This is a teacher's book, and something of a missionary's. Mark Edwards is not just a distinguished Homeric scholar but also a university teacher of long experience, and this book, which originated as the 1998 Martin Classical Lectures, is aimed primarily at his peers who teach Greek and Latin literature to undergraduates. He is intent on sensitizing teachers to properties of Greek and Latin poetry which normally get lost in translation, such things as word order, rhythm, multivalence. There is actually very little on sound, the first item of the title--or are we being invited to remove the comma? Highlighted poets are Homer, Aeschylus, and Propertius, each chosen as exemplifying particular characteristics. The various parts of the book are not very well integrated, but that is perhaps not a practical drawback. What gives the book its value is the fact that the features of Greek and Latin verse on which E. fastens are all of the highest importance, and he takes great pains to make them accessible and to elucidate his understanding of their significance. The rampant intentionalism of his critical stance--he construes his task as helping us appreciate "the poet's means of conveying to us what he wants us to feel" (p.124, one among many such formulations)--is unlikely to diminish the book's effectiveness, and the same may be true of his obsession with translation, which nonetheless seems to me a regrettable distraction.

The first two chapters are on Homer. In chapter 1 ("Homer I: Poetry and Speech") he discusses the internal articulation of Homeric verse, as consisting of three or four cola per line, and correlates this with the principles of functional grammar, aka pragmatics. He proceeds historically, introducing the reader to the mechanics and dynamics of Homeric versification according to Hermann Fränkel and Milman Parry and (as the "final" step) Egbert Bakker. He ends pragmatically, with a line-by-line dissection of Il.20.455-89, the furious series of killings by Achilles in the wake of his abortive duel with Hector, giving for each line his own chunk-by-chunk translation (455 'So speaking, / he stabbed Dryops, / right in the neck, / with his spear'; 489 'he struck [it], / and thrust [him] from the chariot; / and they bolted, / his horses [did]')1 accompanied by the corresponding Lattimore, Fagles, and Lombardo versions and analysis in terms of functional grammar (topic, focus, etc.). This is a very instructive exercise in how to read Homer. It also, though this is not E.'s' point, demonstrates how much better Homer is when merely read (aloud, of course), and not translated.

In chapter 2 ("Homer II: Scenes and Summaries") E. rather surprisingly turns to the larger-scale articulation of the Homeric poems. This is more detailed and requires more patience to work through but is likewise very rewarding. E. well shows the non-stop nature of Homeric narrative. Developing the work of Scott Richardson, he concludes that "there are no narrative breaks" within the two Homeric poems (p.58, italicized),2 and views this as an aspect of "oral poetics." E. is intent on capturing the perspective of singer and of listener and is excellent on the actualities of the poems' workings, even when the terminological or conceptual apparatus appears inadequate for dealing with them. The issue of temporal continuity may be due for a narratological update, and what is τόφρα if not "meanwhile"?3 The real-time technique of Hitchcock's Rope (and now there is Sokurov's Russian Ark) is really very different from the "unbroken continuity" of Homer. E. closes the chapter by desiderating an edition which not only defies the traditional book divisions, as West's Teubner has now in fact done for the Iliad, but also goes without paragraphing, such an edition being "intended primarily for professional scholars," creatures presumably whose eyes will not glaze and whose minds will not fog when confronted with a text offering no respite from start to distant finish. He does not extend the argument to other verse, let alone to prose. Prose in fact he rarely mentions, though his observations often apply no less to prose texts than to poetic. His argument is not that the text proceeds verse by verse from beginning to end and should be allowed to articulate itself without editorial interference (that would cover impertinences such as punctuation too), but a softer one based on the "uninterrupted" character of the Homeric discourse. But do not the invocations of the Muses at 2.484, 11.218, 14.508, and 16.112 give at least formal discontinuity?

While still occupied with the experience of the listener, E.'s approach in chapter 3 ("Music and Meaning in Three Songs of Aeschylus") is rather different. His concern here is with rhythm, and with metrical effect, building on William C. Scott's work on "musical design." He goes through the first three choral odes of the Agamemnon and undertakes a syllable-by-syllable rendition; by familar convention stressed syllables substitute for heavy syllables, unstressed for light. Such a grotesque exercise cannot avoid the likeness of a dog walking on its hind legs, but its success in its own terms is a minor miracle: with the help of stress-markers, it manages to be at once exact in its metrical mimesis, faithful to the Greek, and intelligible (however stilted).4 Here is a short and simple sample, the "lilting little coda" 433-6 (for the sake of on-line readability I suppress the stress-markings on the vowels and instead mark the onset of stressed syllables with caps):

Each the Men that they Sent Forth
Knows; but Now, in their AbSence,
Urns and Ashes in Place of Men
Come aGain to the HouseHolds.

The translation, presented not alongside the Greek but in place of it, is offered with a view to recovering something of the experiential realities of Aeschylean lyric as reflected by its metrical structure. A running commentary attends it, constructing response to meter, music, and dance (and words) as the songs unfold and eliding difference between the original audience and us. E. may be described as practising a strong but fuzzy form of affective metrics, across the language boundary. It is a brave and ambitious undertaking, and to me it seems more successful than so inevitably reductive and distortive an exercise has any right to be. But it must be acknowledged that the affective properties of (say) aeolochoriambic are not very transparent even in Greek, and certainly do not carry over into English. In the case of the above example, we need to remember the information which the commentator has supplied that it "always seems to be a light, cheerful meter" often used for marriage hymns.

Access to Aeschylean lyric is eased by way of poems by Robert Frost and Thom Gunn. It is a good strategy, though its efficacy depends on the acceptance of dubious equivalencies. Iambic pentameters from Frost serve to introduce metrical resolution (double-short for long). Who could resist the invitation to regard what we have in 'As when some flower lay withering on the ground' and 'And then on tremulous wing came back to me' as being "similar in effect" (p.68) to resolution in Greek?5 But it is a long way from there to the aesthetic appropriation that is E.'s target, which I fear he inevitably falls well short of. The passage across cultures cannot so easily be bridged, however diligently he endeavors to shortcircuit his readers' metamorphosis into ancient Athenians. Nor are all the particular hurdles cleared. The lecythia of the Helen ode (681ff., 'Who was he that named her thus' etc.) are labelled trochaic, "which we have not heard since the invocation of Zeus in the chorus' first song" (p.89). He can say that because the intervening lecythia of 442ff. ('Ashes long-to-be-bewailed' etc.) were labelled iambic. As he is well aware, and to a laudable extent confronts in his footnotes, we are in territory where real differences can be hidden and false ones created both by nomenclature and by colometry; and the correspondence between metrical form and rhythmical reality can be problematic. But what really makes the project self-defeating is the decoupling of the meter from the Greek.

Chapter 4, "Poetry in the Latin Language," takes a different tack again. Word order matters. Consider the position of 'multi' in Horace's vixere fortes ante Agamemnona / multi. Here E. invokes reader-response criticism, bracketing Riffaterre, Iser, and Stanley Fish (all cited from Jane Tompkins' 1980 collection: who needs more?), but is not concerned to position himself beyond the key point of sequentiality. His main theme here is ambiguity, in particular what he calls "transient ambiguity." Readers (and/or listeners) of Latin poetry reconfigure their preliminary understanding of a given word or sequence of words in light of what they encounter in the immediate sequel. In Prop.1.19.1, non ego nunc tristis vereor, mea Cynthia, Manes, the first four words are initially registered as "I am not now unhappy"; 'vereor' shifts the reference of the negative; and finally 'Manes' reapplies 'tristis': "the inevitable transient ambiguity will draw attention to the word and attach its meaning both to the poet, 'wretched' because he is in love, and to the ghosts, 'gloomy' because they are dead" (p.111). Unhappy as some of his treatment may seem, it is both true and important (though some may say truistic) that the words come in a certain order, and we do not suspend our understanding of them pending completion of the poem or even of the sentence; textual meaning is an ongoing negotiation, from start (or before) to finish (or beyond). Cognitive restructuring is a phenomenon still, I think, given too little attention by classicists in general, and while E.'s approach rests on perhaps too atomistic a model of cognitive processing of elegiacs, his implicit insistence that texts are not static structures and that meaning is not wholly under the control of grammar is quite right. Whether 'extremo debita' in 2 nec moror extremo debita fata rogo could even transiently suggest "the last debt I owe" is another matter.

An oddity about this chapter is that, despite its emphasis on word positioning, almost nothing is said of the interrelation of words and meter--a factor not irrelevant to 'tristis ... Manes,' an almost incantatory pattern, and to others of E.'s perceived ambiguities.6 A more general difficulty, at least for me, is E.'s unabashedly romantic image of Propertius. He feels a need to defend the poet against a charge of mythological irrelevance: the introduction of Protesilaus in 1.19 "may well seem frigid" (p.114); for the poet "has deeply felt things to say" (p.110). E.'s Propertius may be more recognizable to others than he is to me--a tortured figure "struggling to express his personal feelings" (p.124; his intensely personal feelings p.118), a poet to whom romantic irony is unknown, to be distanced as far as possible from Callimachus. The sentimentality is hard to filter out, harder than the author-centeredness common to the whole book ("Propertius intends imago to have at least three senses" is easy to convert to a recognition of multivalence), but it remains the case that there are real and significant phenomena addressed in this chapter. E. makes a point of confining it to Latin, as having no definite article, but the limitation is not really defensible, given Greek poetic practice.

Four appendixes, A-D, round out the book. Three of them complement the chapters on Homer. A and B identify the (very different) Homeric affinities of Tennyson's Morte d' Arthur and (briefly but most interestingly) Virginia Woolf's narratologically experimental Mrs. Dalloway, with its shifts of perspective in a temporal continuum. C addresses the problem of intermissions in the Homeric poems, too long for a single performance but with no evident break points. D, complementing E.'s syllable-by-syllable version of Aeschylean lyric in chapter 3, presents some other isometric renditions of classical meters in English (stress replacing quantity). Interesting as these curiosities are, they do not seem to me to support the notion, fundamental to E.'s enterprise, that in the metrical replication (which in any case rarely replicates anything but merely syllabic structure, destroying the actual dynamics of the original form) there is any carry-over of effect. For stichic meters some sort of affective continuity can perhaps be induced by immersion in classical verse (much as Greek meters were historically appropriated by Latin), but it is not easy to find Homeric ethos in 'Down in a deep dark dell' (as I dare say E. would agree), and developed and complex lyric has no chance of surviving the shock of the language transfer, to say nothing of the cultural derangement. 'Rebel, serfs, rebel' will never be a dochmiac: it may imitate the form, it cannot convey the effect. It is telling that Frost's hendecasyllabics were not recognized as such; Tennyson's had taken the precaution of identifying themselves.7

"The essential point in reading poetry in the original language is to savor to the full the poet's intent, to be able to appreciate the feelings he wants to communicate to us" (p.123). It is an eloquent manifesto. The book conveys a strong sense of E.'s own engagement with the poet, whether Homer, Aeschylus, or Propertius, and of his desire to enable others to share the richness of his experience. It is an intensely personal book, earnest, modest, humane, scrupulously honest, unfailingly gracious; in short, utterly disarming, making the reviewer's task a hard one. I have indicated some shortcomings, or what seem to me to be such. To find more may seem mere captiousness. E.'s take on multivalence or "ambiguity" could be said to be underdeveloped: we should realize "that we should not try to limit the meaning, that we should accept all viable possibilities" (p.124). As a reaction to the either/or syndrome, the commentator's traditional assumption that ambiguities are there to be disambiguated, this is very welcome, but the crucial question of viability, of constraints contextual or otherwise, is simply left hanging. Similarly earlier: "Virgil, of course, intends all these meanings, and the translator must not limit the options" (p.106, E.'s italics). Here the translator enters the picture, and this raises problems of a different sort. As E. himself continually points out, a translator necessarily limits the options. Translations distort: traduttori traditori.

E. knows this as well as anyone. In a sense, it is why he has written the book. The manifesto quoted above continues "without the inaccuracies, omissions, supplements, ... that inevitably result from translating his poem into another language." So it may be wondered why he persists in treating translation as the goal. Translating is an activity separable from reading, or for that matter from listening. E. begins his book by distinguishing reading the Homeric poems from listening to them (which he says we ought to be doing ourselves), and sets about explicating the nature of Homeric versification under the conditions of oral poetry and the listeners' processing of the verses as they come. That, I suppose, is what starts him down the prickly path of translation; for at that point it is "sense," the middleman of his title's trio, that occupies him, and translation may seem relatively innocuous, its helpfulness effacing its collateral devastations. But the casualties are precisely sound and rhythm, things which he rightly (if only intermittently) recognizes as implicated in "sense." Also in play, of course, are the practicalities of the classroom, which E. has at the forefront of his mind. Students expect to translate: teachers expect them to. But need E. have acquiesced? and so totally, so complicitly? His book, he explains in his preface, is for Classics professors "who spend much of their working lives teaching students to translate ancient poetry in class" (x). E. seeks to help them, to help them do it better, to "give them renewed interest in showing their students how to translate" (x, his italics). If only he had said "how to read"! For he is really doing two quite different things: he is drawing attention to certain highly significant properties of Greek and Latin poetry (and prose, I would add), and he is seeking ways to render these in English. I am not saying that the latter is a wholly worthless thing to do, but E's preoccupation with it throughout this book seems to upset the priorities. He clearly regards the question of "how to translate" as essential to his project. I think that is misguided. Anyone reading Greek or Latin, teachers and students alike, should view translation as a merely ancillary activity, not to be confused with the primary business of reading (and/or listening); E.'s treatment risks encouraging the confusion.

A three-page "Afterword" (placed before the Appendixes), addressed to teachers of ancient Greek and Latin poetry, gives a good idea of E.'s agenda and aspirations, and sums up the entire book, as in a way the book itself seems to sum up his entire career, from schoolboy listening to his schoolmistress' beautiful readings of Just So Stories in a one-room English village school (p.40 n.7) to esteemed teacher and eminent scholar at a major US private university. He wants students to be asked not just "What does this mean?" but "Why does the poet say this in this way?" and "How do you produce a similar effect in English?" (p.126). Some of us may want to reformulate these questions, more or less drastically, as well as extending them beyond verse. But if by this book he succeeds in heightening sensitivity to the features which he seeks to recuperate, he will indeed have done good service to his peers and successors "in their honorable, exacting, and never-finished task" (p.127) and have given renewed hope for the continued vitality of ancient Greek and Latin literature.


1.   This latter verse, presented in Greek as νύξ', | ἀπὸ δ' ἅρματος ὦσε, | κυκήθησαν δέ | οἱ ἵπποι, illustrates not only the value but also the inadequacy of the analysis, inasmuch as the breaks between νύξ' and ἀπὸ δ' ἅρματος ὦσε on the one hand and κυκήθησαν δέ and οἱ ἵπποι (enclitic οἱ) on the other are treated as equipollent. A systematic defect of the Fränkelian partitioning is its failure to recognize the metrically bipartite nature of the hexameter. Another issue is the relationship between the metrical structure and the (for want of a better word) syntactical, which may be in mutual tension.
2.   Treatment of the points at which there is formal breakage, i.e. cases of asyndeton, would have been welcome; narrative continuity is normally quite clear, but that is interesting in itself. Particularly interesting is the Janus-like μέν. It could be noted that in prose works μέν ... δέ couplings may occur at book-divisions (e.g. Thuc.3/4, 7/8, cf. Hdt.7/8, 5/6; Ar. AP).
3.   Too loosely rendered "then" at p.56 n.55. Continuity of text (or utterance) does not entirely result in continuity of represented action. The issue of time in Homeric narrative has been hijacked in Homeric studies by the provocative idea that some events represented as consecutive are to be understood as concurrent: the more mundane but no less important fact needs to be remembered that some events are represented not as consecutive but as concurrent. "Zielinski's Law," endorsed by E. (p.58 n.60), has been importantly clarified and corrected, see variously H. Patzer in the Festschrift für H. Hörner (1990), 153-72, A. Rengakos, "Zeit und Gleichzeitigkeit in den homerischen Epen," Antike und Abendland 41 (1995) 1-33, and R. Nünlist, "Der homerische Erzähler und das sogenannte Sukzessionsgesetz," Mus.Helv. 55 (1998) 2-8; and for ancient (Aristarchan?) anticipation of the principle, the Iliad commentary P.Oxy.1086 (Pap.II Erbse) ii 57-60 on Il.2.788.
4.   E. has communicated to BMCR a couple of errata: p.73, transl. of v.106 should be modified to read "war-strength song-formed" in place of "song's strength", and v.115 to read "of the vessels, the one being darker" in place of "of the ships, the one darker." In each case his original version was one foot short.
5.   The first example E. chooses, however, 'On noiseless wings a bewildered butterfly', does not show "two unstressed syllables in place of a stressed one" as advertised, but a different phenomenon. It is an unfortunate slip, occurring as it does at the very point in his exposition where it does most damage to the reader's comprehension. -- I hope I am right in calling this a slip. What E. thinks must be a slip on the part of Denniston and Page (p.89 n.61) is not.
6.   E.'s enthusiasm for semantic transfusion between juxtaposed words (as with 'extremo debita') could have been tempered also by e.g. 14 'Argivis Dardana', again mid-pentameter. And any ambiguity of 'tristis' in i quaeso et tristis istos compone libellos ("the same double sense again", p.111) must be transient indeed!
7.   Though Tennyson occupies quite enough of the book, I regret the absence of his Catullan review immortalizing a certain J.H. Friswell: "... | Friswell, Pisswell, a liar and a twaddler | Pisswell, Friswell--a clown without redemption | ..." Less so his attack on indolent reviewers.

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