Friday 26 March 2021

A variation on prose rhythm: verse in prose

One of the hobbies of Latinists – nearly as common as finding acrostics in poetry, but healthier and more plausible – is finding scraps of Latin verse in the midst of prose. I don’t mean quotations, but bits of prose that scan like lines or part lines of poetry, which in the complex quantitative metres of Latin is a lot harder than, say, an accidental pentameter in English (‘To boldly go where none has gone before’, as Star Trek didn't say). Notoriously the first line of Tacitus’ Annals is a rather awkward hexameter (I use macrons and breves for long and short syllables – scansion fonts are too complicated):

            Ūrbēm / Rōm(am) ā / prīncĭpĭ/ō // rēg/ēs hăbŭ/ērĕ

            The city of Rome from the beginning was governed by kings…

This is a theme of historical writing, as Sallust’s Jugurtha similarly began with a hexameter, in this case a spondeiazon:      

            Bēllūm / scrīptū/rūs // sūm / quōd pŏpŭ/lūs Rō/mānŭs…

            I am about to write the war that the Roman people…

And Livy’s massive history with most of a hexameter:

            Fāctū/rūsn(e) ŏpĕ/raē // prĕtĭ/ūm sīm / si…

            Whether I would be doing something worthwhile if…

And it is indicative, perhaps, of historiographical pretensions that the first emperor began the inscription of his deeds, the Res Gestae, with a hexameter (still metrical for most of the second line, indeed):

            Rērūm / gēstā/rūm // dīu/(i) Aūgūs/tī quĭbŭs / ōrbĕm

            tērrā/r(um) īmpĕrĭ/ō // pŏpŭ/lī Rō/mānī…  

Of the deeds achieved by the defied Augustus in which [he subdued] the world to the power of the Roman people

Recently, Tony Woodman (‘Numerosus Horatius?’, CQ 69 (2019), 911-12) spotted that another Augustan prose inscription, that commemorating the Secular Games of 17 bc (CIL 6.32323 = ILS 5050), referred to the poet Horace’s Carmen saeculare in metre – not the sapphics in which it was written, but another of his favoured metres, the first Asclepiad:

            cārmēn / cōmpŏsŭīt // Quīntŭs Hŏrā/tĭūs 


            The poem was composed by Q. Horatius Flaccus 

Today I was discussing with colleagues software to scan prose and identify prose rhythm – a rather different matter, not least since Latin prose rhythm normally shuns poetic metres, and has less fixed rules. Still, electronic searches could identify many more instances of verse fragments in prose. In any case, the discussion inspires me to jot down a couple of other cases of verse in prose that I have spotted over the years.

In Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis 9, a proposal is made in the Olympian senate to accept the recently deified Claudius as a god: 

censeo uti divus Claudius ex hac die deus sit, ita uti ante eum qui optimo iure factus sit, eamque rem ād Mĕtă/mōrphō/sīs // Ŏvĭd/(i) ādĭcĭ/ēndăm

I propose that the deified Claudius from this day be a god, just as anybody before him who has been made one with full rights, and that this matter be added to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The jesting reference to Ovid’s epic of unnatural transformations is matched by the figure of the prose turning into the last five feet of a hexameter (scanning adicio, as is common, as adjicio).

Half a century later, in Tacitus’ Histories, the historian pronounces a notorious judgment on the emperor Galba (Hist. 1.54):

            …omnium consensu ‘căpāx / īmpĕrĭ/ī nĭs/(i) īmpĕr/āssĕt’.           

            By general consent capable of imperial rule – if he had never reigned.

This is a phalaecian hendecasyllable. In Tacitus’ day the first two syllables of the metre were normally both long, but its greatest Latin practitioner Catullus had allowed one of the two to be short. It is tempting to wonder whether we might not be dealing with a quotation from a poem.

Tacitus, though a famous orator, is not usually seen as an adherent of conventional prose rhythm – that is of the artistic rhythms at ends of clauses, differing from those of verse, that were imported from Greek into Roman oratory in the late republican period, and that spread into many other genres. History-writing, at least up to Tacitus, is not thought to be one of those genres. However, the recent article of Tom Keeline and Tyler Kirby, ‘Auceps syllabarum’, in Journal of Roman Studies 109 (2019), 161-204, uses electronic searching to look systematically at metrical prose rhythm across a great number of early imperial authors. While Tacitus shuns conventional artistic rhythms in the Annals and in most of the Histories, his Dialogue on orators has a statistically significant number of them, unsurprisingly for a famous orator; so does the Germania and the speeches in both the Agricola and the Histories. Keeline and Kirby do not find the Agricola outside the speeches significantly clausulated.

But there are dangers of looking statistically for prose rhythm, rather than reading the text. The rhetorical preface of the Agricola does read to me as clausulated, none less than the last phrase of the first paragraph: tam saeua et infesta uirtutibus tempora, so savage and hostile to virtues were the times. Not just the conventional clausula of the double cretic (long short long), but four cretics in a row:

            Tam / saēu(a) ĕt īn/fēstă uīr/tūtĭbūs/ tēmpŏră.

Tacitus spoke of fifteen years of literary silence under Domitian. This blog has been silent for a shorter period, of about a year, under circumstances trying for most of us. In any case, things will get better, and I will try to add further posts, extending this series on prose rhythm, in the coming weeks.