READING VIRGIL'S LATIN VERSE

For any student of Latin literature who wishes to appreciate just why Romans found the poetry of Virgil so exhilarating and stimulating, it is absolutely essential to read his poetry in the original language. To seek to translate Virgil's work without attempting to read the verse condemns the learner to a mere academic exercise, dominated by the disciplines of accidence and syntax, important as they are, but in which the inspiration of the Muse is entirely lacking; but once one has learned to scan the lines and then to read them aloud, the magnificent rhythms of Virgil's poetry come alive, and carry the reader along to progressive crescendos of excitement and emotion. In addition to his mastery of poetic rhythm, Virgil is also adept at the use of onomatopoeia and alliteration, both to reinforce the meaning of his poetry, and to evoke associated moods of melancholy, gloom and horror on the one hand, and martial valour and patriotic splendour on the other, as well as of tenderness and pathos, often in the case of deathbed or funeral scenes. He also makes liberal use of the imagery of nature in similes which graphically describe the actions of the crops, the sea, the winds, the birds, the skies, and the divine powers which inspire them. To read Virgil's poetry is indeed an aesthetic delight.
 
But how should Virgil's poetry actually be read? We are told that by the First Century B.C.E. when Virgil wrote, Roman poets, in imitation of the Greeks, wrote 'quantitative' poetry, which consisted of the delineation or recurrence of long and short syllables in furtherance of various metrical forms. If one listens to the remarkable on-line readings of Robert Sankovsky, it would seem that the rhythms of classical Latin poetry were very different indeed from our English verse with its emphasis on stress accents. However, quantitative verse, if it really did sound like Sankovsky's renderings, is too alien for the modern ear, and would surely become unduly monotonous if declaimed for any length of time. Furthermore, some scholars have questioned the extent to which Latin poetry really did suppress the verse beat, or 'ictus', and the natural accentuation of syllables within words. Indeed, it can be argued that much of the fascination of Virgil's poetry arises from his skilful handling of beat and the stress accent of words, and that this adds to the variety of rhythms within his lines, which we consider below. In practice, therefore, it does seem appropriate to allow such accentuation to be emphasised when reading Virgil's work, while at the same time remembering that a long or heavy syllable took twice as long to read as a short or light one. 
 
Beneath the apparent rhythmic congruence of Virgil's hexameter lines, there is, in fact, a remarkable degree of variation, which was essential if monotony was to be avoided; this variety affected both the metrical structure of the lines themselves, and the points within them when pauses were effected. Both these areas are now considered below. (In this analysis a long syllable is shown as '--' and a short syllable as 'u').
 
Variation of metrical structure. In hexameters there is an almost total degree of uniformity in the structure of the last two feet of the six-foot line. The fifth foot is almost invariably a dactyl (i.e. -- uu), other than very rare exceptions when some special effect is sought, and the sixth foot is always a spondee (i.e. -- --) or a trochee (i.e. -- u), since the final syllable of all Latin verse metres is 'anceps', i.e. long or short. Whether the last syllable is long or short, however, the sixth foot was generally regarded as a spondee, by the device of 'brevis in longo', and it will be classified as a spondee in the analysis below. Despite the remarkable uniformity of the last two feet, it is, however, permissible in the case of the first four feet for the 'thesis' or the 'biceps' element of any of the dactyls (i.e. uu), to be 'contracted' into  a long syllable (i.e. --) and thus to form a spondee. In practice, therefore, there is a possible variety of 16 different syllable combinations for each hexameter line, and the number of syllables in a line can vary between 17 and 13; the metrical structure of these lines is set out below:
 
A.1: -- uu; -- uu; -- uu; -- uu; -- uu; -- -- (5 dactyls, 1 spondee) = 17 syllables.
 
A. 2: -- uu; -- uu; - uu; -- --; -- uu; -- -- (4 dactyls, 2 spondees) = 16 syllables.
 
A. 3: -- uu; --uu; -- --; -- uu; -- uu; -- -- (4 dactyls, 2 spondees) = 16 syllables.
 
A. 4: -- uu; -- uu; -- --; -- --; -- uu; -- -- (3 dactyls, 3 spondees) = 15 syllables.
 
B. 1: -- uu; -- --; -- uu; -- uu; -- uu;  -- -- (4 dactyls, 2 spondees) = 16 syllables.
 
B. 2: -- uu; -- --; -- uu; -- --; -- uu; -- -- (3 dactyls, 3 spondees) = 15 syllables.
 
B. 3: -- uu; -- --; -- --; -- uu; -- uu; -- -- (3 dactyls, 3 spondees) = 15 syllables.
 
B. 4: -- uu; -- --; -- --; -- --; -- uu; -- -- (2 dactyls, 4 spondees) = 14 syllables.
 
C. 1: -- --; -- uu; -- uu; -- uu; -- uu; -- -- (4 dactyls, 2 spondees) = 16 syllables.
 
C. 2: -- --; -- uu; -- uu; -- --; -- uu; -- -- (3 dactyls, 3 spondees) = 15 syllables.
 
C. 3: -- --; -- uu; -- --; -- uu; -- uu; -- -- (3 dactyls, 3 spondees) = 15 syllables.
 
C. 4: -- --; -- uu -- --; -- --; -- uu; -- -- (2 dactyls, 4 spondees) = 14 syllables.
 
D. 1: -- --; -- --; -- uu; -- uu; -- uu; -- -- (3 dactyls, 3 spondees) = 15 syllables.
 
D. 2: -- --; -- --; -- uu; -- --; -- uu; -- -- (2 dactyls, 4 spondees) = 14 syllables.
 
D. 3: -- --; -- --; -- --; -- uu; -- uu; -- -- (2 dactyls, 4 spondees) = 14 syllables.
 
D. 4: -- --; -- --; -- --; -- --; -- uu; -- -- (1 dactyl, 5 spondees) = 13 syllables. 
 
Variation in pauses. When it comes to pauses within lines - the word 'caesurae' actually means 'cuts', but this is too strong a word -, there are basically two types of main or principal caesura: 1) the penthemimiral caesura, i.e. caesura in the middle of the third foot (n.b. a penthemimer is a metrical unit of five half- feet); and 2) the hepththemimiral caesura, i.e. a caesura in the middle of the fourth foot, usually acting in combination with a trihemimiral caesura, in the middle of the second foot, which, when taken together, have the effect of separating the line into three parts. In this article a main caesura is marked 'X'. In Latin verse there was a strong preference for a strong, or masculine, caesura, i.e. one that comes after the first (always long) syllable, or the 'arsis', of the foot, as opposed to a weak, or feminine, caesura, which comes between the two short syllables which divide the 'thesis' of a dactyl. The location of the main caesura can be illustrated as follows in relation to these two types of caesura (for the purposes of these examples a hexameter line B. 2 is used:
 
1) -- uu| -- uu| --Xuu| -- uu| -- uu| -- --
 
2) -- uu| --Xuu| -- uu| --Xuu| --uu| -- --
 
In some instances it is possible for the reader to chose one or other of the above types of pause. Some will try to apply a penthemimiral caesura wherever possible, and avoid the two pause effect of the trihemimiral/ hepththemimiral caesurae, ignoring, in the process, the presence of commas or semi-colons in the relevant feet, designed by editors to guide the reader. However, where such punctuation marks exist, and/or the application of a pause in the third foot would involve a weak caesura, it is surely preferable to adopt the second/ fourth foot pause approach, and the relatively frequent incidence of such lines almost certainly reflects Virgil's recognition of the need for rhythmic variation. Sometimes a genuine choice remains, and in such circumstances the reader should decide which caesural system to adopt on the basis of perceived sound effect or in respect of natural breaks in meaning.

In order to illustrate how these variations in meter and pause were applied by Virgil, a short extract of 22 lines (ll. 295-316) is taken from Book VI of the "Aeneid", which contains the celebrated account of Aeneas' visit to the Underworld in the company of the Cumaean Sybil. This passage gives us a picture of what the Romans imagined would happen to the soul after death; it evokes an atmosphere of sadness and gloom, in which the main focus is the terrible figure of Charon, the ferryman of the dead across the River Styx. In this passage Virgil employs 11 of the 16 varieties of hexameter line available to him, and there is a 15:7 split of lines with penthemimiral and trihemimiral/ hepththemimiral caesurae. As set out below, the long or heavy syllables are underlined, divisions between feet are marked by '|' and the main caesura is shown by an 'X'. Where two or more long syllables, contiguous within the same word, form a spondee, they are separated by a hyphen. At the beginning of each line, the type of hexameter line is indicated in brackets:


l. 295 (A. 3):  Hinc via | Tartare|i X quae | fert Ache|rontis ad | un-das.

l. 296 (B. 3):  Turbidus | hic  cae|no X vas|taque vo|ragine | gur-ges.

l. 297 (B. 4):  aestuat | atqu(e) om|-nem X Co|-cyt(o) e|-ructat ha|re-nam.

l. 298 (B. 2):  Portitor | has X hor|rendus a|quas X et | flumina | ser-vat

l. 299 (B. 2):  terribi|li X squa|lore Cha|ron: X cui | plurima | men-to

l. 300 (B. 2):  caniti|es X inculta iacet; X stant | lumina flamma,

l. 301 (A. 4):  sordidus | ex umeris X no|-do de|-pendet a|mic-tus.

l. 302 (B. 2):  Ipse ra|tem X con|-to subi|git, X ve|-lisque mi|nis-trat,

l. 303 (C. 4):  et fer|-rugine|a X sub|-vec-tat | corpora | cum-ba,

l. 304 (B. 1):  iam seni|or; X sed | cruda de|o X |disque se|nec-tus.

l. 305 (D. 4):  Huc om|-nis X tur|-b(a) ad ri|-pas X ef|-fusa rue|-bat,

l. 306 (C. 3):  mat-res | atque vi|ri, X de|-functaque | corpora | vi-ta

l. 307 (B. 2):  magnani|m(um) he-ro|-um, X pue|r(i) in-nup-taeque pu|el-lae,

l. 308 (A. 2):  imposi|tique ro|gis X iuve|nes an-t(e) ora parentum:

l. 309 (D. 4):  quam mul|-t(a) in sil|-vis au|-tum-ni frigore | pri-mo.

l. 310 (A. 4):  lapsa ca|dunt foli|(a), aut X ad | ter-ram | gurgit(e) ab | al-to

l. 311 (C. 1):  quam mul|-tae X glome|rantur a|ves, X ubi | frigidus |an-nus

l. 312 (C. 4):  trans pon|-tum fugat | et X ter|-ris im|-mittit a|pri-cis.

l. 313 (D. 4):  Sta-bant o-ran-tes X pri-mi trans-mittere cur-sum,

l. 314 (C. 4):  ten-de|-bantque ma|nus X ri|-p(ae) ulteri|oris a|mo-re.

l. 315 (B. 4):  Navita | sed tris|-tis X nunc | hos nunc | accipit | il-los,

l. 316 (B. 4):  ast ali|os lon|-ge X sum|-mo-tos | arcet ha|re-na.


With regard to pauses within the lines, it will be noted that approximately two-thirds of the above lines have a strong main caesura in the third foot, and a third have two strong caesurae in the second and fourth feet; of these latter, of which there are 7, the possibility of a pause in the third foot is vitiated in ll. 298, 300, 304 and 311 by the need to employ a weak caesura as the main break, while in ll. 299, 300, 302, 304 and 311 the punctuation marks point clearly to the double break. Finally, a third foot break in l. 305 would require a main caesura to be inserted in the middle of the adverbial phrase 'ad ripas', something evidently unacceptable. However, there remains a genuine choice in ll. 312 and 315. While a third foot pause seems marginally preferable in these two cases on grounds of sound, strong caesurae are available in both the second and fourth feet to permit a combination of trihemimiral and penththemimiral caesurae in both lines.

Bucolic diaeresis. It should also be noted that Virgil had a distinct partiality for the 'Bucolic diaeresis'. A 'diaeresis' is the name given to a break where the end of a word and the end of a foot coincide. This was not generally considered to be particularly desirable if it happened too frequently, but in the case of the division between the fourth and the fifth feet it was considered good practice. Such breaks were called 'Bucolic' because they had been used by the Greek pastoral poet Theocritos in his poems about herdsmen, οἱ βουκόλοι. In the above passage Bucolic diaereses are marked with a red line between the fourth and the fifth feet, and they occur in 10 of the 22 lines. In poetic terms their main rhythmic effect is to strengthen the 'shave and a haircut' or 'blackberry pudding' sound of the last two feet.

Coincidence of word accent and 'ictus'. Another source of rhythmic variety in Virgil's poetry arises from the potential clash between natural the stress-accent of Latin words and the beat or 'ictus' of quantitative verse. With regard to the stress-accent of Latin words, this falls on the first syllable of words of two syllables, on the last syllable but one of words of more than two syllables, if that syllable is long, but on the last syllable but two if the last syllable but one is short. In quantitative verse, however, the verse accent or beat falls on the first (long) syllable of each foot, whether it is a dactyl or a spondee. In hexameter verse it is very common for the word accent and verse accent to coincide in the first foot, and in the final two feet they always do so; but in the middle feet, i.e. feet two, three, and four, they rarely coincide. In his poetry Virgil generally follows these expectations, which were necessary to avoid monotony or the development of a 'sing-songy' rhythm, and his careful management of this conflict is one of the reasons for the rhythmic beauty of his poetry. With regard to the coincidence of word accent and beat, these 22 lines show the following position:

Foot 1: All lines except 299, 300, 308, 314 (n.b. the first word in these lines is more than 3 syllables.)
Foot 2: ll. 297, (301), 306, 308, (309), 315, (315).
Foot 3: ll. 298, 299, 304, (305), (310), 311, (312).
Foot 4: 296, 297, 303, 306, 316.
Foot 5: All lines.
Foot 6: All lines.
(The brackets relate to monosyllables, on which word stress is optional and relates to the degree of emphasis that is desired.)

Models for the reading of lines. To assist the reader of hexameter verse it is very difficult to find English poems written in hexameters, against which one can model one's rendering of Virgil's Latin verse. However, Henry Longfellow's poem "Evangeline", can be used in this way with profit, particularly the earlier lines. The poem itself, while undoubtedly a poetic tour de force is difficult to recommend, as the story it tells is desperately sad and the hexameter rhythm does indeed become somewhat monotonous, despite Longfellow's manifold efforts to avoid that. Nevertheless, some of its lines, particularly at the beginning of the poem have a sort of sonorous beauty which is compelling, and they can be used as a model against which each of the 16 types of hexameter line can be measured. In the case of ll. 295-316 of "Aeneid" Book VI, a similar sounding line from "Evangeline" is identified below for each of the 11 types of line which the extract contains (n.b. long syllables are underlined, and the relevant line of "Evangeline" is shown in brackets at the end of each line. Where one English word contains a spondee, the two syllables are hyphenated):

A. 2.  White as the snow were his locks, and his cheeks brown as the oak-leaves. (l. 64)

A. 3.  Gentle Evangeline lived, his child and the pride of the vill-age. (l. 61)

A. 4.  Sweet was her breath as the breath of kine that feed in the mead-ows. (l. 68)

B. 1.  Down the long street she passed, with her chaplet of beads and her mis-sal. (l. 74)         

B. 2.  Scattered like dust and leaves, when the migh-ty blasts of Octo-ber (l. 13)           

B. 3.  Hearty and hale was he, an oak that is covered with snow flakes; (l. 63)

B. 4.  Columns of pale blue smoke, like clouds of incense ascen-ding, (l. 50)

C. 1.  Naught but tradition remains of the beautiful village of Grand-Pre (l. 15)

C. 3.  Fair was she to behold, that maiden of seventeen sum-mers. (l. 65)

C. 4.  West and south there were fields of flax, and orchards and corn-fields.(l. 27)

D. 4.  Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophe-tic. (l. 3)

(N.B. In a number of cases Longfellow uses trochees in place of spondees; this is necessitated by the relative shortage of long syllables in English, e.g. ''breath of kine that" in l. 68 above. These are really two trochees, not spondees. When reading such trochees, however, if one 'dwells' on the shorter syllables "of" and "that", the spondaic effect can, to some extent, be maintained.)

Conclusion. It is hoped that the reader will find his reading of the lines of this extract in Latin will benefit from the rhythmic modelling provided by Longfellow's lines. However, it remains important when reading quantitative verse to dwell sufficiently on long or heavy syllables, something which can be done while allowing the deployment of the verse beat which is natural to an English reader. The extract upon which this article has focused in order to illustrate the various ways in which Virgil was able to exercise rhythmic variety contains a greater proportion of spondees than are usually found. These spondees reflect the gloomy atmosphere which Vigil was seeking to engender at this point in the narrative, and any reading of this extract should reflect this mood.
Last modified onSaturday, 07 April 2018 15:54
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