Monday, July 10, 2006

A Vertical Poetic Technique

On page 39 of How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (1995), Calvert Watkins discusses a "vertical" technique used in the IE tradition. He says:

"The prominence and emphasis accorded to sentence-inital position may be repeated in successive verses, such that the inital elements of each may be 'read'---i.e. heard and processed---'vertically', as a syntactic constituent."

He gives an example from the Rig Veda 9.54.3, where ayáṃ...punānó...sómo is the subject (with his translation):

ayáṃ víśvāni tiṣṭhati
punānó bhúvanopári
sómo devó ná sū́ryaḥ

[This pressed soma stands over all creation like god Sūrya.]

He compares this to a passage from Pindar, Pyth.12.9-11 (with his translation):

τὸν παρθενίοις ὑπό τ᾽ ἀπλάτοις ὀφίων κεφαλαῖς
ἄιε λειβόμενον δυσπενθέϊ σὺν καμάτῳ
Περσεύς, ὁπότε...

[Which Perseus heard being poured with grievous toil from the maidenly, unapproachable heads of snakes, when...]

It made me wonder if μῆνιν οὐλομένην at the beginning of the Iliad is an example of this technique. It is probably impossible to determine what the poet had in mind; an example like this, with two words, seems much less striking and convincing than three words over three lines. But there is no escaping that it must be "heard vertically", as Watkins puts it. The question is whether this was merely a convienent arrangement for the poet, or a deliberate design, and whether or not it would be striking to Greek speakers, who were accustomed to such spacing in their heavily inflected language.

It also occurred to me that this vertical technique might be related to the tendency for separated words to adjoin themselves to caesura boundaries. (See the article on Epic Caesura by William Annis.) Perhaps this even lends some support to the idea that the hexameter is better described as a joining of two hemistichs, rather than six feet.


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