Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter


Cedric H. Whitman

When Milman Parry died in 1935, his great demonstration that the Homeric poems were the culminating product of a long, highly developed oral tradition had already raised many questions to which scholars today are still trying to discover answers. Perhaps the most formidable question was: if oral poetry is composed by illiterate bards out of inherited metrical formulas, how can the Iliad or Odyssey, or any other oral poem, be considered a work of art in any of the senses known to us? In critical writings, words like ‘primitive’ and ‘mechanical process’ kept appearing to describe such composition, though Parry himself had never used them and few found them applicable to Homer. A counter-revolution seemed the only recourse; there have been, and still are, many defenders of the doctrine of indispensable literacy, who have put a pen back into Homer’s hand and thus rescued, not the poet, but their own critical approaches to him. More recently, it has been recognized by a number of younger scholars that the crucial problem is not whether Homer somehow used writing to make his poems, or did without it entirely. Even if that question could be answered with certainty, the problem of finding a justifiable framework for literary criticism would still remain, for Homeric language would still be formulaic and traditional, a venerable medium in which the contributions of individual {vii|viii} poets are impossible to identify, and Homer himself no more than a traditional name for the creator of the only two epics that have survived from the prehistory of Greek verse-making to the present.

The real problem that faces the critic of Homer, or of any oral poetry, is to acquire understanding of the essential nature, workings, and if possible the origins of a traditional language as it grows with a people’s formulations, conscious or half-conscious, of its history, cults, and myths. It is a problem of structural psychology on the one hand, and of verbal behavior on the other. We will never know what, if anything, is original with Homer himself, but we may learn something of the potentials for development and innovation within a traditional linguistic edifice, and thus perceive some of the factors that govern a poet’s use of his medium; one may distinguish the fixed and the fluid elements available for the expression of a given semantic need, and observe how one composer’s choice among these affects others. Before this kind of knowledge, the forbidding specter of the rigid formula recedes into the living processes of language at work in the mind, always seeking to clarify and enrich its symbolism; and only with the help of such linguistic understanding can the literary appraisal of a traditional poem be true.

Professor Nagy’s book is a study of this fundamental problem, though its title modestly {viii|ix} asserts no more than an inquiry into comparative Indo-European metrics. But metric, and above all its underlying prosodic preferences and intuitions, is an all-important determinant in the growth of poetic expression, while the latter in time has a converse effect upon metrical conventions. We are offered here a detailed analysis of the behavior of one such metrical unit of oral poetry, the Homeric phrase κλέοc ἄφθιτον, ‘imperishable glory,’ together with its Sanskrit cognate, śráva(s) ákṣitam, as it occurs in the Vedic Hymns. A single formula may seem like a small key with which to unlock so vast a storehouse of tradition, but the role of analogy is a large one in the world of oral creativity, and what is observable of one formula is, mutatis mutandis, compatible with the development and behavior of others. It would require an intolerable length of pages to describe the full activity of all the component elements of an oral system, but fortunately it is not necessary. Knowledge is qualitative, not quantitative, in that one rightly observed process reveals the dynamics that control all kindred processes, and so brings ultimate principles within reach.

Among the numerous findings that emerge from this inquiry are three calling for special notice. The first, which binds the whole book together, is that a traditional poetic language is prior to the crystallization of metrical formulas, the term used by Parry and still used {ix|x} for the fixed phrases which make up such a high percentage of Homeric and all oral poetry; once crystallized, the formula in its turn affects, or even ‘obliterates,’ to use Mr. Nagy’s term, the primary traditional language by establishing new conventions of composition, which then become the functional basis of most of the texts preserved to us. By ingeniously uncovering the traditional roots of a poetic language, especially in the Rig-Veda, the author has gone far toward showing the origins of the formula, a thing never attempted by Parry or his successors, as well as the formulas’ effect on each other and on the language itself—a feature that Parry did deal with, though briefly, under the term ‘jeu des formules.’

This whole argument, though it is subject neither to rigorous proof or disproof, is a necessary hypothesis which explains how the building blocks of early epic and lyric poetry came into being, and why they do not always behave quite as one might expect, had they been merely a convenient mechanism for verse-making. Nagy’s insight here offers a very important contribution to the literary criticism of Homer and other traditional poets, an insight that may save us from the quicksands that have revealed themselves in the years since Parry died, leaving only hints of what his great discoveries might lead to on the interpretive level.

Nagy’s second point is that Greek lyric forms were not the outgrowth of the epic in the {x|xi} generations after Homer, but grew from long established Indo-European roots, observable in the poetry of the Vedas and elsewhere. This truth, which follows inevitably from the theory of the priority of the traditional language to the formula, should have been self-evident, quite without the aid of metrical or linguistic research: no known culture evolves the long, elaborate epic before its bardic priests address hymns to the gods and mothers sing their children to sleep. But since the remnants of early Greek lyric known to us all postdate Homer, and since the lyric poets all made use of him to one degree or another, we have been nurtured on the naive theory that the lyric grew out of the epic as the expression of a newborn individualism, undreamed of before. Like most absurdities, this one will probably die hard, but it is not too soon to start dismantling it, and revealing the structural verities underlying the growth of both lyric and epic poetry.

The third point is the origin of the Greek Dactylic Hexameter, the heroic six-beat line of Homer. Nothing resembling this meter is known in any other Indo-European language except Latin, where of course it was adopted. Many, therefore, have concluded that it was a meter borrowed originally from some other people, but no one has been able to show from whom it was borrowed. The compositional principles of all other peoples with whom the Greeks had contact are known, and since none of them had the {xi|xii} hexameter, it has sometimes been deemed necessary to invent a shadowy people who did, a people unknown to archaeology and historical documents, but endowed with this highly complex and productive metrical vehicle. The theory is, to say the least, uneconomical. Given the known Greek tendency toward the quantitative fixation of elements in the inherited verse-forms of Indo-European, especially in the originally free opening of the lines, not to mention the wholly Greek development of isometry, it seems reasonable to suppose that the hexameter arose in Greece from extension and fixation of elements already given in Indo-European prosody. Nagy’s theory that it arose from expansion of the inherited pherecratic metron by the addition of dactyls, plus the fixation of the so-called Aeolic base (two opening syllables, optionally long or short) into two longs, is commended by an economic simplicity which suggests the nakedness of truth. There may be alternatives, but if the hexameter could have arisen from any Indo-European meter by dactylic expansion, the question is whether there existed any meter susceptible to such expansion except the pherecratic. After reading Nagy’s lucid exposition, one feels that a venerable ghost has at last been laid.

This study, though developed within a strict methodology based on the work of Wilamowitz, Meillet, and others, is highly original, and will therefore raise, no doubt, a degree of {xii|xiii} controversy; but that can only lead to altered perspectives and increased clarity. Scholars who have struggled for nearly four decades to make proper use of the challenging heritage of Parry, and to solve the critical problems surrounding poetic, and presumably oral, composition in a traditional language, will welcome so ground-breaking an analysis of the linguistic factors involved in such composition. Here is none of the subjective guess-work that jeopardizes the theories of many recent writers on the subject, but a vigorous grappling with this protean enigma, and one that, like every heroic exploit, will turn a page of experience, providing fresh vistas to be pondered and new avenues to explore.