BMCR 2011.09.14

Musa pedestris: metre and meaning in Roman verse

, Musa pedestris: metre and meaning in Roman verse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. vi, 412. ISBN 9780199554188. $130.00.

There are many indications throughout this seductively written book that the author is having a bit of gentle fun with his readers. One clue is the fact that nowhere in his passionate defense of/that “metre matters” (384)1 does Llewelyn Morgan actually mention the Latin phrase of his title. Obviously the word pedestris plays on metrical feet, or pedes, the basis of the exuberant panoply of Greek poetry to which all Latin verse is indebted — aside from Saturnians, from whose rustic Italic nature Ennius famously departed with his footloose hexametric Muses: Musae, quae pedibus magnum pulsatis Olympum ( Annals fr. 1 Skutsch).2 But at the same time, a “pedestrian muse” produces prose or a special kind of down-to-earth poetry that resembles ordinary conversation (in Greek, ἡ πεζὴ λέξιϛ), not the high-style songs of the Muses, and the oxymoron Musa pedestris does more than nod at Horace’s saturis Musaque pedestri, the hexameter-final phrase of verse 17 of Satire 2.6, a poem that Morgan never discusses. This absence and the likewise curious non- appearance in the bibliography of Kirk Freudenburg’s monograph The Walking Muse 3 can hardly both be accidental, and it would seem that Morgan is subtly calling our attention to his seeming inattention. I take it that he is trying with his title to make a point that he presses on every page: a particular kind of readerly inattention, namely to “the associations that any given metrical form might bring to [its] poem” (15), has allowed a major and extraordinarily interesting feature of the Roman Muse to be overlooked, neglected, regarded as pedestrian.

Morgan’s own writing is anything but pedestrian, and a simultaneously positive and negative aspect of Musa pedestris is that the prose is so stylish that I regularly found myself carried along for pages without, I would then realize with a start, quite understanding the logic of the argument. Other readers may do better, but there is no doubt but that Morgan writes in beautiful, unpredictable waves, not orderly academic paragraphs — and I am no surfer. Two of the four main chapters are about a hundred pages long, the other two sixty-five, and all of them engage with the complicated material through a loose accumulation of vignettes rather than a conventional move from a to b to c … to z.

In addition to a long introduction (1-48), a short conclusion (378-84), and supplementary material (acknowledgments, indices, etc.), the four chapters are as follows: “The Hendecasyllable: An Abbreviated History” (49-113), “Iambics: The Short and the Long of it” (114-80), “‘Narrower Circuits’: The Sapphic Stanza” (181-283), and “The Dactylic Hexameter and its Detractors” (284-377). Each one proceeds in more or less the same manner, from an account of the formal properties of the meter in question to the associations this meter carries with it and then to close readings of various poems whose contents either do conform to the expected associations or — at first glance, at least — do not. For example, while it is true that no writer of Latin before Catullus thought to use the form of the Sapphic stanza to translate the apparently already popular fr. 31 of Sappho (Φαίνεταί μοι κῆνοϛ …), the one thing that is not controversial about Catullus 51 ( Ille mi par esse deo uidetur …) is its meter.4 By contrast, the Sapphics of a very different poem by Catullus, 11 ( Furi et Aureli, comites Catulli, …), are uncontroversial only inasmuch as scholars tend to say that the metrical form evokes that of 51: “Catullus’ choice of the same metre for Poem 11 is generally, and not incorrectly, explained in terms of the relationship between these two poems: Catullus marks the end … of this passionate affair with a rueful reminiscence, verbal as well as metrical, of the poem that marked, and perhaps even constituted, its beginning” (200). Morgan goes further, arguing that the χάριϛ (“charm”) that Demetrius and others identified as “a key quality” of Sappho’s style is so wholly absent from Catullus 11 that we need instead to say that

The real force of Poem 11, and of the fifth stanza in particular [17-20: cum suis uiuat ualeatque moechisilia rumpens ], derives from the insurmountable impropriety of such content in the sapphic stanza: sapphics can never be an appropriate medium for invective, and can only host invective if something has gone terribly wrong. The metrical reminiscence of Poem 51 above all points up what sapphics should be the vehicle for, and how far from that proper material the grotesque image is that Catullus conjures up at 11.17- 20.

My suggestion is obviously that this poem, and its climactic stanza, constitutes a powerfully expressive contravention of metrical proprieties comparable to Catullus 4 or 31.5

And what of Catullus 4 ( Phaselus ille …) and 31 ( Paene insularum, Sirmio, …), both examined at length in the previous chapter, on iambics? The former poem, in “pure” iambic trimeters (much harder to manage in Latin than in Greek), Morgan (132-58) considers together with its splendid parody, Catalepton 10 ( Sabinus ille …), “the only whole-poem parody to have survived from antiquity” (133). Why does Catullus 4 have this meter? The simple answer, known to every student, is that the speedy iambs represent the speedy yacht and are, furthermore, as Greek as the φάσηλοϛ. The more complicated answer, which Morgan urges his readers to accept and which I find delightfully convincing, is that since the iambic form is inseparable from invective, Catullus is boldly misusing it in this “warm[ly] affection[ate]” poem (139) — and the author of the pseudo-Vergilian Catalepton 10,6 “a poem which makes practically every iambo-satirical move available” (151), is, then, among other things correcting this misuse, and in an over-the-top fashion. As for Catullus 31, here the mismatch between a happy homecoming and an abusive meter — in this case choliambics — is widely recognized, as Morgan himself readily concedes, but Morgan’s command of the bigger picture allows him to clarify and expand on the idea (124-30) that the limp in each verse “expresses the fatigue and demoralization of a long-distance traveller” (128).

I have been concentrating on Catullus and on the Sapphic and iambic forms, but it would be wrong not to remark on the sheer breadth of Musa pedestris. Morgan treats the metrical virtuosity of Horace and Statius with particular distinction (the account on pp. 106-13 of the latter’s birthday poem for dead Lucan, the hendecasyllabic Silvae 2.7, seems to me especially compelling), but he has many interesting things to say about Propertius, Ovid, and many other poets as well and about other forms — and above all about what one might call metrical intertextuality and about the relationships among the meters he is considering. For example, is the hendecasyllable fundamentally iambic or ionic (“in many ways the polar opposite of iambic,” 92) — the answer is, both (78-97) — and how do the meters aside from the hexameter define themselves “through a defining contrast with … [this] benchmark” (284)?

A classic instance of metrical intertextuality, Ovid’s reuse of Ars amatoria 2.77-78 hos aliquis, tremula dum captat harundine pisces, | uidit (elegiacs) in Metamorphoses 8.217 + 219 (continuous hexameters), provides the book with a lovely image for its dust jacket: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Morgan’s (surprisingly brief) account of Ovid’s virtuosity here (345-48) is characteristically insightful, especially on the metrical dynamics of the couplet, but it is not wholly original, relying to a certain extent on Alison Sharrock’s work on repetition.7 It is obviously not a criticism to say that someone builds, with acknowledgment, on the observations of others — for Morgan, the principal “other” throughout is Alessandro Barchiesi — and yet readers may find that what makes Musa pedestris special is not so much the originality of Morgan’s close readings (though many assuredly are original) as the missionary zeal with which he pursues the belief that meter is inherently “sexy” (382, with n. 6). This “pathological” (16) fervor perhaps obscures what I see as the book’s methodological flaw, which is that there is a “pick-and-choose” aspect to the enterprise: Morgan’s polemical “thesis is that Roman metrification is never anything other than an intensely considered and academic exercise” (31), but surely meter cannot matter equally much to all poems in all genres all the time. Thanks to the author’s efforts, though, others now have a firm basis for going systematically through the corpus of Latin poetry to try to establish when a given meter is significant because it is at some level following convention (as in Catullus 51), when it is significant because it flouts convention (Catullus 11), but also when it may be significant for a different reason — or not significant at all.8 In any event, we now understand that Horace’s spring rhythm in Ode 1.4 is also “sprung” (167-76) — the style that is in some ways the closest analogue in English to ἡ πεζὴ λέξιϛ — and in return for this and many other witty, unpedestrian reflections on poetry both high and low,9 I propose that all of us who love Latin poetry assemble in Donnybrook, Dublin on the vernal equinox and throw Llewelyn Morgan, the Muses, and ourselves an alcohol-fueled, metrically restorative party (compare 378).


1. The final sentence of Musa pedestris reads, “If, by way of conclusion, I may be forgiven not just a pun but a pun that I have made before, the most important message emerging from this book on metrical matters must be that, in the interpretation of Roman poetry, metre matters”; Morgan refers in a footnote to the first of a number of substantial articles of his on the subject, “Metre Matters: Some Higher-level Metrical Play in Latin Poetry” ( PCPS 46 [2000] 99-120).

2. Morgan discusses Saturnians on pp. 286-310, commenting on the incipit of Ennius on pp. 291-92 (also 23-24), with reference to Stephen Hinds and Alessandro Barchiesi on the Muses’ feet. The principles that underlie Saturnians remain controversial (Morgan thanks Angelo Mercado for advice but does not cite his excellent 2006 UCLA Ph.D. dissertation, “The Latin Saturnian and Italic Verse”), but they are widely believed to be a native form, independent of Hellenizing influence. This was the usual view in antiquity as well, though Morgan points out that a few grammarians disagreed and offers on pp. 300-7 (part of the sub-section “Bricks and Metre”) a very fine account of how the idea of Saturnians as essentially Greek may go back to the poet Accius, who composed poetry in this meter for the (otherwise) wholly Greek temple of Mars erected by his patron, D. Iunius Brutus Callaecus. A hallmark of the book is Morgan’s insistence on “the affinity between ancient metrical theory and metrical practice” (78).

3. The Walking Muse: Horace on the Theory of Satire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

4. I mean in the first place poem “51a,” which Morgan discusses along with poem 11 (see immediately below in the text) in the sub-section “Catullus: Love and the Sapphic Stanza” (200-12); “51b” ( Otium …) receives a separate treatment on pp. 244-47.

5. Thus Morgan 202 (italics in original, footnote omitted). Note the “grotesque string of … synaloephae” in null(um) amans uere, sed identid(em) omni(um) | ilia rumpens (19-20), which “draws the poem towards a style proper to the description of the morally and physically repugnant” (206); on synaloepha, see above all 326-34.

6. Morgan (157-58) would like to think that the author might be Catullus’ friend Calvus, though he stops short of making so bold a claim.

7. Seduction and Repetition in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) 180-81 and 194.

8. I would start by investigating metrically self-conscious verse: see Jürgen Werner, Philologus 134 (1990) 167-94 (Latin material: 171-74 and 176), which Morgan might have cited on pp. 23-24 and elsewhere.

9. E.g., the tradition of using forms of tempestas in metrically violent contexts (287 n. 6); a possible Saturnian effect of the homeoteleuton in Horace, Epistle 2.1.158 (288-89 n. 11; see also 309-10); and the gulf between the inherent prosodic properties of Greek and Latin as neatly illustrated by the pair Γλαῦκόν τε Μέδοντά τε Θερσίλοχόν τε (Homer, Iliad 17.216) and its Vergilian imitation, Aeneid 6.483 Glaucumque Medontaque Thersilochumque (380).