BMCR 2007.10.39

Metrical Constraint and the Interpretation of Style in the Tragic Trimeter

Nicholas Baechle, Metrical constraint and the interpretation of style in the tragic trimeter. Greek studies : interdisciplinary approaches. Lanham: Lexington, 2007. xiv, 343 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780739109502 $36.95.

Table of Contents

It is clear to any reader of fifth-century Greek that tragedy, comedy, and prose have somewhat different styles. Some words are more appropriate to one genre than to another, as are some figures of syntax. In this study, Baechle focuses on certain forms of hyperbaton that are characteristic of tragic style, avoided in prose, and used in comedy mainly in para-tragic passages. He argues that although the tragedians generally preferred the normal prose word order, they were permitted by their genre to use alternate orders when it was metrically convenient. The looser rules about resolution and bridges in the comic trimeter mean that Aristophanes has other ways of incorporating phrases without resorting so often to hyperbaton. As a result, the unusual word order becomes a stylistic mark of tragic diction, though one that the tragedians preferred not to over-use. The analysis is subtle and technical, but repays careful attention; B. not only quantifies but interprets one of the major differences between tragic dialogue and other contemporary forms.

B. is concerned with the placement of words and phrases of various metrical shapes within the trimeter line. While there have been many studies of this type, B. is the first to consider prosodic factors, such as whether a three-syllable word ends in a syllable that is necessarily long, or can be made long by position, or whether a word includes a syllable that can be treated as either long or short (one ending in a short vowel followed by mute and liquid). More importantly, he considers not just single words but phrases, specifically prepositional phrases and noun phrases involving modifiers. Prepositional phrases can appear in at least two different orders: with the preposition before or after the noun, or, if the noun is modified, with the preposition between the modifier and noun, and with the modifier before or after the noun. Depending on the shapes of the specific words involved, the various arrangements may be more or less easy to fit into iambic trimeter lines. In prose, where there is no metrical constraint, the ordinary order is preposition, modifier, noun.1

The other form of hyperbaton B. analyzes is the interruption of a noun phrase by a verb, adjective-verb-noun or the reverse. This arrangement is a useful device for fitting intractable verb forms into trimeter lines, though B. points out that “the tragedians made use of verbal hyperbata within fairly narrow limits [and] they are not particularly common in tragic dialogue” (p. 280). Exactly how “tragic” the hyperbaton sounds depends in part on the type of adjective or other modifier that is being separated from its noun. Here B. draws on some work by Devine and Stephens, who have argued that there is a hierarchy among modifiers, from quantifiers like “some” or numerals, most common in hyperbaton in prose, down to evaluative or descriptive adjectives like “good,” which are quite rare in this use.2 In drama, hyperbaton with descriptive adjectives is far more common than in prose, and it is more common in lyric than in dialogue; in fact, nearly half the verbal hyperbata in lyric involve these adjectives. On the other hand, the more common form in prose, with quantifiers and demonstratives, is less common in tragedy. B. provides details of the practice of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, with Aristophanes included for contrast. B. concludes not only that verbal hyperbaton is markedly poetic, but that different forms of hyperbaton were appropriate for different poetic genres and sub-genres. Because of the way Aristophanes uses these syntactic forms in paratragic passages, moreover, B. argues that audiences must have been sensitive to these subtleties.

B.’s careful analysis sheds light on the apparent peculiarities of tragic word order. His comparisons with comic dialogue are particularly useful, showing how Aristophanes mimics the elevated language of his contemporaries. For example, an analysis of Acharnians 414-434 (p. 227-229) brings out not only the elaborate vocabulary (four different words meaning “rags,” for example) and elevated periphrases, but also the poetic syntax involving characteristically tragic hyperbaton. The linguistic parody adds to the humor of the scene.

As his title states, B. concentrates on trimeters, with only rare notes about lyric. Lyric allows an even greater level of poetic elevation, and is not restricted to any particular metrical family, so the compositional constraints are different. B. also focuses on the complete plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, omitting Prometheus Bound and Rhesus; he lists the specific lines in an appendix, p. 325-329. It would be of interest to extend the study to the fragments of other tragedians, though of course it may be difficult to get statistically significant results.

B. wrote a computer program to do most of the basic counting (described p. 307-312). Use of a program ensures consistency: once the programmer determines that, say, an article and the following word should count as a single prosodic word, the program will always count them this way. On the other hand, B. sensibly avoided trying to account for all the exceptional cases, such as trimeters with more than one resolution (p. 308). His description of the programming problem would make a nice case study in an introductory digital humanities class.

In short, this is a sound, detailed study, useful for scholars of metrics, tragedy, and comedy (and perhaps even for students of verse composition). B. presents all the necessary tables and figures, of course, but never loses sight of the poetics of tragedy and comedy; sensitive readings, especially of Aristophanes, are plentiful. B.’s goal is to determine how the tragedians worked within the constraints of the iambic trimeter, particularly in the strict form appropriate to their genre. He demonstrates how the the tragedians made “a collective stylistic judgment” (p. 31) about what variations were suitable and how often they should be used; this consensus becomes the characteristic tragic style, recognizable to audiences and parodists alike.3


1. B. is not concerned with prose rhythm, and draws his prose comparanda from fifth-century authors.

2. B. cites A. M. Devine and L. Stephens, Discontinuous Syntax: Hyperbaton in Greek, Oxford, 2000; this particular discussion, on B.’s p. 282, is from their p. 33-35.

3. Although there is an index rerum, an index locorum would also have been useful. Unfortunately, B. has not been well served by Lexington Books: the book is strikingly unattractive. Notes appear as end-notes after each chapter, and each page of notes has a separator rule at the top, in the manner of some word-processing software. The table of contents is in barely-readable capitals. The Roman font does not have the conventional ligatures for f i or f l; that’s a subtle point but surprisingly noticeable. The book looks as if it was printed directly from the author’s word-processing manuscript.