Saturday, January 23, 2010

Notes on Iambic and Dactylic Meters

You can find detailed notes about Latin meter in many online sources. I'm not going to try to duplicate those reference materials here. If you want a traditional account of the meters, you can find lots of information in these online GoogleBooks:
Instead of presenting the whole line, which is the usual mode of representation you will find in the reference books, I want to share with you my way of reading Latin poetry, which is based on the what I call the logic of the unfolding elements in the line. The elements unfold clearly and predictably, based on "decision points" in the element. You can't experience a line of poetry all at once - instead, you experience it element by element as they unfold rhythmically, one after another. Both the dactylic hexameter line and the iambic senarius are made up of six elements, but the way those elements unfold in the line is radically different. I'm going to assume that you already have some familiarity with the dactylic hexameter line (as used in Vergil's Aeneid, for example), and in this post I will introduce you to the iambic senarius line, which Phaedrus used for his verse fables, and which many neo-Latin authors have used for their fables as well.

First, let's start with the dactylic hexameter. Instead of thinking about the whole line, let's just think about what it feels like as the line unfolds, element by element. In a dactylic hexameter line, there are only two possible forms an element can take: you can have a two-syllable element, L-L (spondee) or you can have a three-syllable element, L-S-S (dactyl). So, for each element, you have just one decision: the element always starts long, and then you have to decide - long or short? If long, you have a L-L element; if short, another short is sure to follow, and you have a L-S-S element. That's it: just one decision point! The element always starts long, then comes a long or short (short-short), and the process repeats again and again, with the final element of the line always scanned L-L.

The situation is completely different in the iambic senarius. Instead of just two types of elements, there are five possible forms that an element might take (and, very very rarely, a sixth form). Of these forms, there are two possible two-syllable elements: S-L (iamb, which gives the line its name) and L-L (spondee), and there are three possible three-syllable elements: L-S-S (dactyl), S-S-L (anapest) and S-S-S (tribrach). Very rarely there is a four-syllable element, S-S-S-S (proceleusmaticus), but this is so rare as to not even keep it in mind. If you are curious about how there could be so many possible variations in the elements, check out some of the references above. For right now, though, you can just take my word for it; these are the possible forms an element can take in the iambic line.

So, as the iambic senarius line begins, the element always starts with a decision: are you starting long or short? If the element starts long, you have another decision point: you can now go long (L-L) or short, in which case another short must follow (L-S-S). If the element starts short, you also have a decision point: long (S-L), or short - in which case you have one more decision point: long (S-S-L) or short (S-S-S). So, as each element of the iambic senarius line unfolds, there are two decision points at a minimum, and sometimes three decision points for each element. The line unfolds, element after element, with many decision points, but the final element of the line always scans as S-L.

The iambic line sounds complicated, especially compared to the hexameter, but if you think about it as a dance, it's no more complicated than the fox trot, just to take one example! When you do a dance like the fox trot, you might be moving your left foot or your right, and you might be moving that foot forward or back, in or out - there are several many rhythmic decision points in the fox trot, but it's a dance everybody can learn! So, don't worry: once you spend some time reading iambic lines, the five patterns - L-L, L-S-S, S-L, S-S-L, S-S-S - will become just as familiar as the simple two-pattern dactylic hexameter line with its L-L and L-S-S.

For various complicated reasons having to do with the underlying rules of the iambic meter (see the references above for the incredibly complex details), the two-syllable elements (L-L, S-L) greatly outnumber the three-syllable elements in any iambic senarius line. So, in the iambic poetry at this blog, I'm using a color coding system to indicate the three-syllable elements: dactyls (L-S-S) are red, anapests (S-S-L) are purple, and tribrachs (S-S-S) are green. In addition, I've indicated elisions with a ~ tilde and the verse elements are marked with an · interpunct.

So, for example, here is a poem which has just a few three-syllable elements scattered here and there, and they are only dactyls (L-S-S); almost all of the elements are disyllables, making the poem very easy to read out loud; it's the story of the puffed up frog, Rana Rupta et Bos (read the blog post for more information, including a version of the poem without meter or elision marks):

Inops,· poten·tem dum· vult imi·tārī,· perit.
In prā·tō quon·dam rā·na cōn·spēxit· bovem,
et tāc·t~ invidi·ā tan·tae māg·nitū·dinis
rūgō·s~ īnflā·vit pel·lem. Tum· nātōs· suōs
inter·rogā·vit an· bov~ es·set lā·tior.
Illī· negā·runt. Rūr·sus in·tendit· cutem
māiō·re nī·s~, et simi·lī quae·sīvit· modō,
quis mā·ior es·set. Il·lī dīx·ērunt· bovem.
Novis·sim~ in·dīgnā·ta, dum· vult vali·dius
īnflā·re sē·sē, rup·tō iacu·it cor·pore.


By contrast, this little poem has a three-syllable element in almost every line; it's the story of the dogs trying to drink from the crocodile-infested Nile, Canes et Corcodili (read the blog post for more information, including a version of the poem without meter or elision marks):

Cōnsili·a quī· dant prā·va cau·tīs homi·nibus
et per·dunt ope·r~ et dē·rīden·tur tur·piter.
Canēs· curren·tēs bibe·r~ in Nī·lō flū·mine,
ā cor·codī·līs nē· rapian·tur, trā·dit~ est.
Igitur· cum cur·rēns bibe·re coe·pisset· canis,
sīc cor·codī·lus Quam·libet· lamb~ ō·tiō,
nōlī· verē·r~. At il·le Face·rem m~er·culēs,
nis~ es·se scī·rem car·nis tē· cupidum· meae.


I hope this style of marking the verse will be helpful in making the iambic line as easy to scan as the dactylic hexameter. If you have any feedback about this system, let me know!

PS: My style of reading iambic lines. What I am about to explain here is my own personal preference for a style in reading iambic lines. As you can see, iambic lines are strongly characterized by two-syllable elements in which the second of those two elements is long. That's the underlying pattern, much like in the English iambic pentameter of Shakespeare. The question everyone must then ask when reading Latin iambic lines out loud is what to do with the three-syllable elements. My personal preference is to resolve many of the three-syllable elements into two-syllable elements using natural tendencies in the Latin language iteself: semivowels and the dropping of short vowels.

So, for example, if possible I read the "i" or the "u" of a three-syllable element as a semivowel. For example, in the poem above about the crocodile, the word rapiantur scans S-S-L-(L), but I read it as rapjantur, turning the three-syllable element into a two syllable element. So too with the first word of the crocodile poem: I read consilia as consilja, and in the poem about the frog I read iacuit as iacvit, and so on.

In situations where the three-syllable element does not contain a semivowel, I freely drop a short vowel, reading cupidum as cup'dum, or facerem as fac'rem. Of course, you can also see the same kind of dropping of short syllables formalized in variant forms of Latin words often found in poetry, such as periclum used instead of periculum when the meter requires it.

I'm presenting this information simply in the interests of full disclosure of my own reading practices - not as a recommendation that anyone else do the same! You need to find the way of reading out loud that is most congenial for you. For me, the free use of semivowels and dropping of short syllables helps me read the lines with a great deal of pleasure, following the twists and turns of the poet's use of the various possible elements in the line. As I said, I'm not recommending to anybody else that this should be done - I'm simply explaining what allows me to read iambic lines with confidence and pleasure, reveling in this popular form of Latin verse in all its variant forms, "feeling" the iambic pattern in every element of the line as it unfolds. The iambic line is especially associated with comic verse, such as these fables of Phaedrus or the comic playwrights Plautus and Terence. So please, above all, make sure you have fun with this! It would be a shame to read iambic verse without having fun at the same time. :-)

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