Scholars have a tendency to see themselves in their work. This is why Hellenistic poets were once thought to be proto-Romantics, and later became proto-pomo. This explains the Pessimists who argued, beginning in an age dominated by the fear of totalitarianism, that Vergil was a subversive voice weaving verses which secretly opposed the tyranny of Augustus.
If scholars tend to associate themselves with works and figures of the past, they also contrast themselves with others. 19th century philologists, especially German philologists, have been fashionable targets for some time. They were ‘positivists,’ a term of reproach to some. Die Philologen were so hubristic as to think true knowledge (of a kind) attainable or at least worth pursuing. In short, positivists—like the dark lords of the Sith—believed in absolutes. As some scholars today have been known to say, ‘that way leads fascism.’
The philologists, it is true, had a lot of convoluted theories about poetic meter, and scholars today are eager to dissociate themselves in this area as well. Some have found a parallel in the supposed argument between Metrici, slavish foot-counters without an ear for poetry, and Rhythmici, who were ‘more sophisticated.’ The trouble is that nothing substantial from the Rhythmici survives. We rely almost entirely on the testimony of Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
M.L. West takes for granted that the Rhythmici were in fact ‘more sophisticated,’ and he accepts the statement by Dionysius that the long of the dactylic hexameter was shorter by an indeterminate amount than the long of other meters, or than the long which may fill the biceps position, because it allowed for ‘irrational syllables.’ This strikes me as a false inference. I incline to believe that the princeps was actually marked by a slight, artificial lengthening which defined the rhythm. This artificial lengthening would in fact allow for the substitution of a lengthened breve in the princeps position. Artificial lengthening in the biceps position, which never occurs, would not only obscure but destroy the rhythm (the ‘flow’).
The Rhythmici, like their modern followers, incorrectly assumed that the possibility of breve in princeps position must point toward something less than the ‘true’ longum, and thus have called it an ‘irrational’ position. In this they have completely ignored the implications of an imposed rhythm. Why shouldn’t we simply mark this position anceps, which is truly an irrational position? The assignation of a specific time value which both lengthens a breve and shortens a longum is not only unlikely, but itself irrational.
Those who adhere to such a view are likely to accept that Greek poetry is good evidence for the phonology and prosody of Greek speech, yet the remarkable consistency in metrical practice from archaic to imperial times argues against this. The changes and so-called refinements of successive generations fail to alter significantly the fundamental rhythm of the line.
Further, the colometric structure (hemiepes + paroemiac), though apparently unrecognized by the theoreticians (whether Metrici or Rhythmici, ancient or modern) was never entirely lost on practicing poets. Witness the practice of the Roman satirist Persius who employed the native cola to great stylistic effect (presented with hemiepes and paroemiac on successive lines):
omne vafer vitium
ridenti Flaccus amico
tangit et admissus
circum praecordia ludit,
populum suspendere naso.
(Persius Satire 1. 116–118)
In verse 116 the hemiepes contains the direct object flanking an appositive, the paroemiac a dative of interest flanking the subject (B-A-B | C-A-C, we might say). Verse 117 is entirely composed of verb phrases. Verse 118 shows the very common practice of respectively linking the beginning and the end of each colon (A-B | A-B). The ablatives, excusso and naso, are a syntactic unit, while callidus suspendere populo is another. Prosaically the sequence is ‘callidus populum suspendere excusso naso,’ i.e., ‘skilled to suspend the public upon his blown nose.’
The structure for the three lines may be represented in this way
o-S-o | a-S-a ||
V | V ||
S-a | S-a ||
where ‘V’ = verb phrase, ‘o’ = object, ‘S’ = subject (really anything referring to the subject, including substantive phrases such as ‘callidus populum suspendere,’ in which the acc./inf. phrase is essentially attributive), and ‘a’ refers to cases with special adverbial relationships (dative and ablative).
Persius’ observance of the colometric structure of the hexameter is undeniable. Recognition of the original structure of the verse (i.e., hemiepes + paroemiac) is evident in the reading of all good poets, and I sometimes point this out to students in my AP Latin classes who struggle at times with hyperbaton and the like.
So what was I getting at in writing these rambling notes? Our knowledge of the nature and composition of verse is not nearly as secure as you might think, or as many handbooks make it seem. All of us, including the best scholars, bring a world of prejudices, guesses, and ignorance to the problems. But that’s half the fun. It remains a puzzle.