Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.18

Joan Silva Barris, Metre and Rhythm in Greek Verse. Wiener Studien. Beiheft 35.   Wien:  Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2011.  Pp. 177.  ISBN 9783700169024.  €39.20 (pb).  

Reviewed by Joel B. Lidov, Queens College; The Graduate Center, City University of New York (

Table of Contents

Silva Barris’s opening sentence speaks of “the rhythmic reality hidden behind the syllabic sequences.” He seeks to discover the durational values—expressed in modern musical notation—that would have regulated the performance of each syllable in each type of metrical form. He accepts the metrical structure of archaic and classical poetry as defined by Maas and subsequent twentieth-century scholars, and the book sifts, methodically and carefully, the evidence and arguments for durations within those structures. A succinct Prologue lays out why he thinks this effort is possible, despite Maas’s dismissal of it. Then the First Part goes through the basic components of rhythm as he sees it defined in antiquity; the Second Part, by far the longest, looks at individual metrical genres, and the Third Part looks at a selection of problematic, metrically compound passages to discover the possibilities for their rhythmic articulation.

The author assumes, of course, that there necessarily were precise durational ratios that defined each metrical type. A corollary of this assumption is that when he finds (from his own analyses or in an ancient authority) that two metrical structures are functionally equivalent (e.g., an iamb or a spondee at certain points in the trimeter), that must mean they are also equal in duration in that function; the same foot structure, therefore, can have different durations in different contexts. This equality applies both to external responsion and to Maas’s internal responsion, for Silva Barris correctly (I think), but silently, assumes that the latter (which Maas allowed was often imperceptible to us) is a nod to the 19th-century rhythmicians’ search for equal bars. The necessity of durational equality in the components of each metrical type frames the search for the distinctive rhythm of each.

In the Prologue Silva Barris adduces the four “resources” that make it possible to discover the values of long and short syllables in archaic and early Classical poetry. First, ancient doctrine, largely derived from Aristoxenus, offers guidance. Second, the surviving musical texts, although much later, show such a degree of coincidence with metrical forms and ancient doctrine that “it would be unwise to overlook them” (p. 10). Third, the linguistic distinction between long and short vowels imposes limitations on the musicians—evident especially in the musical texts where overlong notes are avoided on syllable structures that are not easily lengthened. Fourth, other musical traditions offer comparative evidence, although in the end these are rarely mentioned.

In the first of the three chapters in the First Part Silva Barris demonstrates that the ancient tradition does not support a categorical distinction between spoken and sung meters, and concludes that the same methods of analysis should apply to both. In the second, he shows that the basic terminology of Plato’s reference to Damon in Republic 3.400b-c is coherent with the terminology of Aristotle in the Rhetoric and that both agree with the terminology of Aristoxenus, in particular with the concept of ratios and the basic divisions into 1:2, 1:1, and 3:2 ratios, and the existence of an “up” and “down.” He takes this to mean that archaic and early Classical practice are continued in Hellenistic theory and practice, and that the latter can be used to explore the former. The remainder of this chapter looks to the analytic concepts of the protos chronos (he avoids the use of mora) and the foot. For the latter he provides an extended discussion of the various uses of thesis and arsis, and their apparent synonyms in ancient scholarship, and of the resemblance and difference of the foot and the modern “bar.” He demonstrates convincingly that the ictus is largely a “pseudo-problem,” because length and stress generally involve each other in the creation of a prominence, while insisting that the foot has no defining downbeat. This last is a nice example of how Silva Barris rarely cites the modern scholarship on controversial questions or engages in polemic with it, but nonetheless addresses it. Later on in the book he largely abandons “foot” in favor of “cell” as the basic unit (compare Dale’s lyric elements). The final section, on responsion, argues for the regular existence of differing syllables and syllable groups that must occupy equal durations, but cites only prolongation in Hellenistic music and anceps in dactylo-epitrite.

The second chapter is devoted to showing that the 1:2 ratio of an eighth to a quarter note (or a quarter to a half note) predominates in the rhythmic relationships of short and long syllables; that there is abundant evidence for the existence of irrational relationships, but that it is not always clear whether within or between feet; that it would be “wise to consider the probable existence of τρίσημοι syllables in the vocal music and poetry of the archaic and classical periods” (p. 34) but that it is hard to be certain where or when they occur—the extreme caution here is notable—and that even longer durations for a single syllable are possible but must have been uncommon. Rests with rhythmic values can also be supposed, especially when there are breaks in the verbal continuity of the rhythm (he has many ways of not saying “pausa”) and when catalexis is demonstrable, but the instances are not always self- evident. In short, readers accustomed to the ease with which rhythmical transcriptions have been made of metrical structures will be surprised to see how Silva Barris concludes from his collection of the actual evidence the need for caution in analyzing particular texts.

The third chapter, on “syllabic equivalences,” methodically goes down the list of all the types of responsion between syllables or sequences differing in protoi chronoi (e.g. anceps), in number (e.g. spondee and dactyl, but also single and double short), or in order (e.g. iamb and trochee). His assumptions dictate that he will find durational equivalence, but nonetheless he carefully gathers what evidence there is from the texts and the ancient scholars, and categorizes the possibilities for how it is achieved, particularly when the inherent lengths, by the 1:2 rule, differ. The rule rejects the notion of a “third quantity” for anceps, but leaves open the possibility that rhythmically some longs were equal to shorts, or that very minor adjustments produced alogos ratios, with different meters, genres, or contexts suggesting different strategies for the durational equivalence. He also expands on the problem of catalexis, which, if it is certain, dictates the durational equivalence of a longer and a shorter foot, and he considers the role of final longa, here attending to the linguists’ theories of the special role of such syllables.

In the eleven chapters of the Second Part Silva Barris applies all these considerations to the common metrical genres in order to find the actual performed musical-rhythmical value of every syllable. In the discussion of dactylic types he engages in the book’s only direct polemic, summarizing and refuting West’s argument that the biceps position was longer than the princeps by careful examination of the ancient discussions of irrational ratios and of the contexts in which different syllable types are used, taking note of the influence of word-end and of the greater unlikeliness of finding equivocal syllable types (including metrical lengthening) in the biceps position, where both syllable types are possible. In the discussion of single-short rhythms, he opts for the likelihood of equality of duration on the level of the metron, allowing for minor length differences among the metrically equivalent syllables. His thoroughness raises the specter of triple-dotted eighth notes but in fact he rejects a single solution, preferring to take each of the three ancipitia of the trimeter as a separate problem and allowing for the possibility that, in certain situations, “the performer enjoyed a certain degree of freedom as regards its duration” (91). If this were extended as a more general principle, it would have implications for the whole project.

When he gets to Aeolic Silva Barris follows the consequences of his assumptions and returns to the long-abandoned question of dividing the line into equal “cells” in inner responsion (including the base). Again, he does not propose a single solution: the “choriambic” division (trochee + iamb for the double short) is proper for some types, whereas the possibility of a dactyl equivalent to trochee seems more probable in others. In many cases he notes that we lack the evidence to choose which of several possibilities is correct. On the other hand, in the discussion of dactylo-epitrite, he does not resurrect ionic-choriambic scansion, but permits the meter to combine sections in two different rhythms. He concentrates here on what to do with the anceps. Implicitly rejecting “link-anceps,” he allows for different lengths in different contexts without coming to a specific conclusion.

Part Three takes on a dozen passages in mixed rhythms, from Archilochus’s Cologne epode and Alcman’s Partheneion to odes by Pindar and the tragedians. In all these cases he offers alternative possible analyses, without choosing between (or among) them. Though intellectually honest, this disappoints the original hope that the question of an actual, musical rhythm was answerable.

Silva Barris’s argument is premised on too many assumptions. He never defines the syllable and his discussion of duration mixes up two separate phenomena. He does not incorporate the distinction between weight (heavy and light) and length (long and short, applicable only to vowels) recommended by W. S. Allen, but he appears to follow the corollary of that distinction that looks only at the nucleus (vowel) and coda (closing consonants, if any) of the syllable, and not the onset (opening consonants, if any) as determinants of syllable quantity. Devine and Stevens (1994, The Prosody of Greek Speech, 85-156) have argued that the length of nucleus+coda (the rhyme or “rime”) is interpreted as a binary contrast (of weight) for meter, but small variations in duration, to some degree subject to performance, can be utilized within a word to form the binary contrast of stressed and unstressed that constitutes speech rhythm. Silva Barris appears to follow their lead, since the creation of slight variations that do disrupt the long-short distinction are essential to his argument that each type of meter is expressed in a distinctive rhythm, but he implicitly assimilates their discussion of prominence in speech rhythm to a musical rhythm of regulated durations within the line (where the length of the onset could also be made to matter). Further, his use of later theory obscures how little we actually know about Damon, especially in view of how Plato dismisses a technical discussion and Aristophanes makes an obscene joke of one in the Clouds— these being our only two sources. Nor can we be sure that Damon, who was most interested in ethics, fully abstracted a theory of meter and rhythm from his observation of the different contexts in which each meter was used, or whether his teaching was more than a sophistic systematization of basic observations on resolution and contraction.

Perhaps the “reality hidden behind the syllabic sequences” is the repetition not of durational ratios but of metrical patterns, including some variations, allowing irregularities and open to a variety of interpretations in performance. After the breakdown of Classical methods of composition by these patterns in the late fifth century (loosely, the New Music), late fourth-century audiences may have looked for more temporal regularity instead, and Aristoxenus’s theory and method may have used Damon’s categories to allow old songs to be performed in accordance with the new, Hellenistic taste. But since the often tendentious scholarship of the last two centuries has been much preoccupied with the question of musical rhythm, I am grateful, even in disagreement, for the thoroughness of Silva Barris’s review of the problems and his compilation of ancient sources (always translated) and evidence.

The book lacks an index, which makes it difficult to find, say, all the different treatments of anceps or where the author discusses the thorny problem of “cyclic” dactyls and anapaests. The bibliography includes representatives of all main treatments, but among those the author might find sympathetic I miss Ruijgh’s studies of variations of length in the anapaest (1987, Mnemosyne 40: 313-352; 1989, Mnemosyne 42: 308-330) and Thomas Goodell’s analysis of many of the same sources and problems (1901, Chapters on Greek Metric).

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