Greek metre

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(Some types of metre are described in 4.)

Greek verse is quantitative: syllabic length is its patterning agent. (The patterning agent of English verse is stress.)

1. Prosody

A syllable is long (—) either ‘by nature’, when its vowel‐sound is long (long vowel—Eta, Omega (see alphabet, greek) and sometimes Alpha, Iota, Upsilon—or diphthong) or ‘by position’, when its vowel‐sound is short but followed by two or more consonants, whether or not they belong to the same word. In this case, the consonants are said to ‘make position’. (Zeta, Xi, Psi are double consonants.) However, plosive (mute) followed by nasal (Mu, Nu) or liquid (Lambda, Rho) does not always make position, depending on whether the plosive closes the syllable: pāt‐ros but pă‐tros. (The poet could usually choose whichever his metre required.) The plosives are: Pi, Beta, Phi (labials), Tau, Delta, Theta (dentals), Kappa, Gamma, Khi (velars). The voiced plosives, (Beta, Delta, Gamma) are the strongest: Gamma Mu, Gamma Nu, Delta Mu, Delta Nu always make position. The meeting of vowels at the junction between words gives rise to various modifications.

2. Basic Concepts

While actual verse is composed of syllables (components of words), verses (‘lines’) in the abstract can be thought of as patterns of three types of ‘position’: long (−), short (∪) and anceps (χ). This last admits either a long or a short syllable. So, χ − ∪ − can be realized as either ∪ − ∪ − or − − ∪ −. One long counts as equivalent to two shorts. In some metres double short and long may be interchangeable. If double short does replace long, that is resolution. Much Greek verse is composed in sequences of uniform metra: short rhythmic phrases with their own rules for internal variation (e.g χ − ∪ − iamb, − ∪2∪2 dactyl, etc.) So, χ − ∪ − χ − ∪ − is an iambic dimeter, and − ∪∪ − ∪∪ −∪∪ − ∪2∪2 a dactylic tetrameter (four dactylic metra). The end of a verse (verse‐end) may be marked by catalexis: a verse is catalectic if its final or penultimate position is suppressed.

3. Verse and Stanza Stichic

verse is composed in sequences of verses (stichoi, lines) of from three to six metra, uniform in metrical type and length. This kind of composition is associated with spoken delivery. Stichic verses must have word‐end at or near mid‐verse. Such word‐end is called caesura if it falls within a metron. Distichs are couplets of unequal verses. Commonest is the elegiac distich or couplet: dactylic hexameter (4(b) + −∪2∪2− ∪2∪2− | − ∪∪ − ∪∪ −. For the stanzas of choral lyric see lyric poetry, Greek.

4. Types of Metre

Types of poetic rhythm are associated in origin with different regions and poetic genres.(a) Iambic and trochaicThese two metres can be seen as different segments of the sequence χ − ∪ − χ. The iambic metron is, as above, χ − ∪ −, the trochaic − ∪ − χ. Longs may be resolved. In the early iambic trimeter, caesura falls in the second metron, after anceps or after short: χ − ∪ − χ |− ∪ |− χ − ∪ −.In the 5th cent. the iambic trimeter became the standard spoken verse of drama.(b) DactylicMetron: − ∪∪ or − − (‘spondee’). The dactylic hexameter (six‐metron line) is the metre of Homeric epic. Aristotle describes it as the ‘most solid and massive of metres’, but he may have been swayed by the subject matter. The hexameter usually has caesura in the third metron, either after the long or between the two shorts: − ∪2∪2− ∪2∪2 −|∪2|∪2− ∪2∪2− ∪2∪2 − −. The fifth metron is usually a dactyl. In the elegiac distich or couplet (see 3), hexameters alternate with a verse made up of − ∪2∪2− ∪2∪2−|∪2∪2 twice over (so‐called ‘pentameter’), with intervening word‐end and long for double short permitted only in the first half.(c) AnapaesticIn the earliest surviving anapaestic verse, Spartan marching songs, the metron seems to be ∪2∪2− ∪2∪2 −, and ∪2∪2− remains the dominant movement. The catalectic (last or last‐but‐one position suppressed) tetrameter is much used in comedy, esp. in the parabasis, which is sometimes referred to as ‘the anapaests’.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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