Archive | January 2017

Fearful symmetry


I’m finally finished with a project I’ve been working at, off and on, for–well, longer than I care to calculate. It is an annotated bibliography of Roman poetic metre, not an awfully thrilling task. But once in a while it reawakened the interest that made me write this book, and to celebrate its conclusion I offer one such moment.

Here is a poem by Martial (2.7), followed by a translation indebted to Shackleton Bailey in the Loeb.

Declamas belle, causas agis, Attice, belle;

historias bellas, carmina bella facis;

componis belle mimos, epigrammata belle;

bellus grammaticus, bellus es astrologus,

et belle cantas et saltas, Attice, belle;                            5

bellus es arte lyrae, bellus es arte pilae.

Nil bene cum facias, facias tamen omnia belle,

uis dicam quid sis? Magnus es ardalio.


You’re a nice declaimer, Attalus, a nice pleader,

you write nice histories and nice poems,

you compose mimes nicely, and epigrams nicely,

you’re a nice grammarian and a nice astronomer,

and you sing nicely, Atticus, and dance nicely;                             5

you’re nicely versed in the art of the lyre, nicely versed in the ball.

Seeing that you do nothing well, but do everything nicely,

would you like me to say what you are? A total trifler.

Martial appears to be flattering Atticus for his stunning panoply of talents, in public speaking, writing, scholarship, music and sport, but actually exposes him as a talentless dabbler, an ardalio.

A lot of the work of the poem is done by the word bellus, superficially complimentary (“pretty, handsome, fine”; I go with “nice”, which isn’t perfect) but “freq. iron.”, according to the Oxford Latin Dictionary. We’re not too far into the poem before we realise that bellus is indeed ironic: Atticus is only superficially talented, in fact a jack of all trades, master of none.

The metre of the poem is elegiac couplets, which combine a dactylic hexameter, the metre of epic, with a pentameter. The pentameters goes like this (where u is a short syllable,  _ a long, and || a word break or caesura): _ u u _ u u _|| _ u u _ u u _. In the first half of the line either of the double shorts, u u, can be replaced by a long _. But the second half of the line is always _ u u _ u u _.

There’s a mnemonic for the pentameter that I inflict on my students: “strawberry strawberry jam; strawberry strawberry jam”. This is a pentameter, but in the first half either strawberry can be a “strawb’ry”, two long syllables, whereas in the second half each strawberry must be a “strawberry”, three syllables (a long and two shorts).

It’s clear enough that the pentameter, a repetition of _ u u _ u u _, is a form tending toward symmetry. But elegiac poets, Greek and Latin, felt an aesthetic imperative to resist this impulse. In particular they avoided a type of line represented by Ovid’s notorious description of the Minotaur at Ars Amatoria 2.24, semibouemque uirum, semiuirumque bouem (“half-bull man and half-man bull”). There is a great story about this line of Ovid recorded by Seneca the Elder, but one problem with it was probably that its two halves are completely interchangeable, identical both in metre and word shape: semiuirumque bouem, semibouemque uirum would scan just as well.

Now this interchangeability (I can never remember which way round the line goes) makes it a brilliant verbal evocation of the hybrid character of the Minotaur (nothing less than we’d expect from Ovid), but also a line shape that was felt to be too neat and tidy. Trying to capture the character of this kind of line, Platnauer calls it “a jingle”, and Luque Moreno “llamativo”, “showy”. That ancient poets felt the same is proved by how how rarely they produce lines like this, and what effects they’re clearly after when they do. (Ovid’s line was evidence for Seneca that Ovid was a slave to his own poetic licentia, lack of decorum, and “was not unaware of his literary faults, but in love with them.”)

Well, there’s another example of a perfectly symmetrical pentameter in line 7 of Martial’s epigram, the climax of his catalogue of Atticus’ accomplishments, bellus es arte lyrae, bellus es arte pilae. I find it fascinating when metre communicates as much as any other element of the poetic composition, and here is a case in point.

For what is the Latin for a symmetrical pentameter, superficially deft but actually rather vulgar? 

Bellus [iron.]