BMCR 1991.07.09

1991.07.09, Response: Daitz on Reading Homeric Verse (AJP 112 [1991] 149-160)

Daitz argues that the Homeric text is overpunctuated, and that ancient readers and reciters did not introduce pauses in their recitation of the Homeric line. They did pause at line end. He holds, therefore, that the metrical shape of the verse triumphs over any syntactic or rhetorical interpretations a poet or rhapsode might want to introduce.

Daitz’s article puts me in mind of a once-celebrated exchange of views, now long since forgotten, in Kenyon Review 18 (1956) 411-477, which excited students at the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Ann Arbor in the summer of 1956. I preface my remarks with two quotes from that issue, 1), by Seymour Chatman (432): “Punctuation often fails to guide the reader with any accuracy to the junctures a poet may have had in mind”; and 2) by John Crowe Ransom (463): “I do not myself know how poetry should be read.” The first supports Daitz, and I agree; I agree also with the second.

Our question should be, as it was with Chatman, Arnold Stein and Ransom, whether in our recitations we are to obey the metrical scheme absolutely and without variation, or whether we are to introduce rhetorical emphasis. Or, put another way, does the metrical form of the verse replace or supersede the syntax of the sentence? The critical line animating the dispute in 1956 was from Donne’s tenth elegy: “So if I dream I have you, I have you.” It would appear that a purely metrical reading (five iambs) will distort the meaning, and will in any event produce two different stresses on I have you.

Daitz holds that we are to pause (a) at the end of every hexameter line, but (b) not within the line. Supporting (a) is the fact that the final syllable of each line is heavy, rendered so either by a long vowel or by the pause which follows; and that elision does not take place at the end of a line. For (b) he adduces three matters. 1) Liaison—a final consonant (of e.g. ἤσθιον of Odyssey 1.9) initiates the initial syllable of the following word (αὐτάρ) when that word begins with a vowel: if it did not and pause intervened, the final consonant would close the final syllable and would render it long. 1 2) Elision—elision takes place even over punctuation, as in Iliad 1.52: βάλλ’ αἰεί. 3) Attic correption, whereby in Odyssey 1.2: πλάγχθη ἐπεί shows correption of the eta even though a comma follows. His observations are correct, but may not prove what he intends them to prove.

Let us define a dactylic hexameter. “The dactylic hexameter line consists of six regularly recurring long syllables, the first five of which are followed by two short syllables, the sixth by one syllable. The final syllable may be long or short, and every pair of two short syllables can be replaced by one long syllable. Liaison, elision, correption are allowed within the line but not at line end.” One will note that by this definition line end is doubly marked metrically: only one syllable follows the recurring long, and prosodic phenomena allowed within the line are forbidden.

Given the above, it would appear that line end is so sufficiently marked that no confusion would be introduced if a poet were to run his line on (with enjambement), as in Iliad 1.51-2: ἐφιεὶς. I do not know how poets will have realized these lines, but am prepared to assume that they did not pause after ἐφιεὶς. The question then is: could they pause after βάλλ’ and before αἰεί?

There are a number of conventions of epic verse, among them those Daitz instances. There are others, such as caesura and diaeresis at various points in the line, and conventions which (e.g.) forbid caesura in the fourth foot and lengthening by position alone in the thesis of that foot. All of these are conventions, but no one of them, including liaison and elision, is obligatory. We find hiatus here and there, and we also find final consonants creating a heavy syllable even before a vowel, as well as long vowels not shortened in hiatus. These cases are considered exceptions to metrical rules, but they may not be quite so exceptional as is usually believed.

All final syllables in Greek are anceps, save those formed of long vowel + consonant. This means the quantity of the final syllable of most Greek words is determined by the initial segment of the word following. The poets knew this, and utilized this information in constructing their verse. One could not construct a verse without knowing the words that were to compose that verse—an elementary observation, perhaps, but one that indicates that the basic unit of Homeric composition was the line and not the word; and that the line—with elisions, etc.—was fully formed in the poet’s mind in the very process of composition of that line.

Having said this, I hope it is clear that the poets could have varied their tempo, their pitch (as Daitz asserts), and could indeed have paused in one way or another. I do not insist that in Iliad 1.52 (βάλλ’ αἰεί) there was a pause between the first two words in the line. I would, however, argue that the enjambement was marked, and that the first foot of that line was rendered differently from the first foot of 1.3 (πολλάς), perhaps with a lengthening of the already long lambda, or with a more pronounced glissando effect leading into the next word, or perhaps even by a pause. In Odyssey 1.2 the final vowel of πλάγχθη is short because a vowel follows: but it need not have followed immediately, and there can have been a pause, a hesitation, a hitch, in the pronunciation. Poet and audience would know that because the vowel was short another vowel was to follow.

Daitz reads superbly and his renditions of Greek verse have delighted many, myself included. He is to be heeded when he speaks of Greek verse. I would suggest, however, that he is in this case, though by and large correct, overly restrictive. Nicanor’s rendition of Odyssey 1.1 with its pronounced pauses may seem ridiculous or extreme to us, but it was an accepted pronunciation.

The Homeric line contains a number of tensions, among them being that of metrical form versus syntactic structure. Various poets will have resolved that tension in various ways. I would hold that, precisely because the conventions of epic meter were so well understood, poets could introduce rhetorical/syntactic interpretation into their recitations. This interpretation may have involved a pause here and there in the verse, and in any event will have introduced into the verse signals appropriate to the syntactic structure of the utterance.

  • [1] In a footnote (n10 p.155) Daitz holds: “In those cases where we have a sequence of final consonant + punctuation + initial vowel, it is possible to pronounce this sequence in such a way that a word boundary is perceived after the final consonant (i.e., pronounced with external transition), but without making a rhythmically distorting pause. This can be accomplished by making a glottal stop between the final consonant and the initial vowel.” This statement seems to contradict what he has just said about liaison, for his recommendation in fact closes the syllable and should render it long (by his argument). Furthermore, we have no evidence for or reason to suspect a glottal catch in Greek. I would hold that poets in such circumstances could in fact—but need not—pause without disrupting the meter. I do not know how they accomplished this.