Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter


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As I will take pains to show in the succeeding chapters, the meters of the Rig-Veda are few in number but flexible in pattern, while those of Greek Lyric are many but rigid. Of course, trends are by nature more easily discernible in flexible patterns. Statistical analysis is possible, leading to all sorts of valuable conclusions about the evolution of this meter or that. Such analysis has in fact been a hallmark of Rig-Vedic metrical investigation, and the results have been impressive. We may develop a fairly good idea of proto-Indic meter simply from the internal evidence of Rig-Vedic meter as it is described in the meticulous studies of Oldenberg and Arnold. [12] On the other hand, trends may often only be intuited in the rigid meters of Greek Lyric. For example, if two {4|5} rigid meters X and Y are identical except for one distinctive feature, where X has a plus and Y has a minus, it seems reasonable to derive them from a single, more flexible, meter where the plus/minus distinction does not exist. But actual proof for such a prototype would have to come from comparative evidence. “A history of Greek Metric,” as A. M. Dale wryly remarks, “is limited to recording the appearance of a great variety of meters, each sprung perfect like Athena in full panoply from the head of Zeus, and to tracing modifications of these in the practice of later poets.” [13] In short, it is inherently difficult to reconstruct the prehistory of Greek Lyric meters on the sole basis of the attested internal evidence.

Meillet was faced with still another great difficulty in his comparative study of Greek meters. Unlike Indic Epic, which dates from a much later era than the Rig-Veda and the meters of which are easily derivable from those already found in the Rig-Veda, [14] the prime of Greek Epic precedes the attested phases of Greek Lyric by a considerable span of time and, what is more, features a highly complex meter of mysterious origins. The dactylic hexameter of those semi-prehistoric figures whom we cherish as Homer and Hesiod has no obvious formal antecedents. The Greek epic genre as such affords no clues, {5|6} since the only attested epic meter is the dactylic hexameter itself. In the end, Meillet was forced to leave out of his comparative study the oldest sample of Greek poetry (more than 30,000 Homeric and Hesiodic verses) on the grounds that the dactylic hexameter must have been borrowed—presumably from the civilization of the Mediterranean substratum. [15] This argument from silence has been tentatively challenged by Meillet’s follower Watkins, who points out the one obvious fact which suggests Indo-European provenience: the closing rhythm of the dactylic hexameter, – – ⏓, “is precisely that of the paroemiac line in Greek, as well as that of the South Slavic epic decasyllable.” [16] As both Jakobson [17] and Watkins [18] have argued convincingly, the closing paroemiac rhythm of certain Slavic and Greek meters is a basic feature of Indo-European verse. Thus at least the closing of the dactylic hexameter may indeed be Indo-European in origin. But the problem remains how to explain the overall shape of this verse in terms of the rhythm …– – ⏓.

If we could just find a way to support Meillet’s theory of Indo-European meter with the metrical evidence of Greek dactylic hexameter, many of the doubts harbored by Greek metricians would perhaps vanish. The task is arduous, because {6|7} we have to devise a plausible scheme for deriving the epic hexameter in terms of the Greek lyric meters which we already know, and all these meters are attested only in a period far later than that of the early Epic. Many Hellenists will find it difficult to think of the epic hexameter as a structure more recent than some lyric meters, simply because Greek Epic is known to be so much more archaic than Lyric in both diction and theme. Even a sceptic will admit, however, that an Aeolic meter like the expanded Pherecratic seems more primitive in terms of its internal structure than the hexameter:

Besides the internal evidence, I will also adduce comparative evidence in the succeeding chapters to argue that the pher3d is not just more primitive but more archaic as well. An experienced Greek metrician like Wilamowitz has intuited as much, and more: he suggests that a meter like the pher3d had actually been the model of the hexameter. [
20] True, he gives no specifics, nor does he define the pher3d precisely, but the idea is there. Wilamowitz is by no means the {7|8} first, either, to consider the hexameter a highly evolved form which comes at the end of a long tradition. Theodor Bergk, the great editor of the Greek lyric corpus, was persuaded as early as 1854 [21] that the Iliad and Odyssey are not samples of metrical primitivism, but rather, the fullest realization of the potential that is inherent in Greek verse. [22] He makes a point of disagreeing with those who consider the dactylic hexameter the primordial type of Greek verse. [23]

My intent, to be sure, is not to argue that the epic hexameter was a new meter. I would say only that it was newer than some lyric meters such as the Aeolic. The hexameter is in fact archaic beyond our more casual imagination, as we may infer from the Parry-Lord theory of the formula. [24] Thanks to Parry’s brilliant discovery that the basis of the Greek epic language is a formulaic system, we now know that the Homeric (and Hesiodic) hexameter cannot be viewed simply {8|9} as an intricate rhythmical system (= meter) into which the poet fits his words. Rather, the epic hexameter consists of formulas which have fixed inner rhythms and which are joined together in such a way as to produce a fixed overall rhythm. If formula and meter are correlate phenomena, it is important that we be prepared to describe meter in terms of formula as well as vice versa. In this connection, we must notice the striking chronological variety that exists in the formulaic system of Greek Epic. For example, the formulas in one Homeric passage may contain two discrete points of information that can be dated as far apart as about half a millennium (from, say, the eighth to the thirteenth century B.C.). [25] Comparable chronological gaps exist between grammatical forms as well. [26] In short, the formulaic system of Homeric diction betrays a lengthy period of evolution spanning several centuries. If we allow for a parallel period of evolution in the meter which encases the formulas, it follows that the dactylic hexameter is an old meter. The argument remains, however, that lyric meters like the Aeolic are even older, from the comparative point of view.

In fact, I agree with the theory of Wilamowitz {9|10} that the meter of Greek Epic is derived from a meter of Lyric. Specifically, I will propose that the lyric meter in question is the same one which I have already described as the expanded Pherecratic (pher3d), an Aeolic form which happens to display the closing rhythm … – ⏓ of the Indo-European ‘Paroemiac’. Besides my own arguments, which will be based on formulaic and metrical considerations, other arguments too are available in support of the general proposition that Greek Epic stemmed from Lyric. I cite in particular the ingenious observations of Pagliaro, whose reasoning is based more on content than on form. [27] Pagliaro uses as evidence those Homeric passages where the poet makes reference to poets and poetry as they exist within his narrative. [28] If indeed Homeric form and content span several centuries of evolution, it follows that references to poetry may betray different stages in the evolution of poetry itself. What Pagliaro finds is that the traditional terminology used in epic narrative for referring to the performance of Epic within the narrative reflects stages of evolution in genre which are far earlier than what we have as {10|11} the end result of such evolution, namely the Homeric corpus itself. And the more archaic the terminology, the more it seems to suit not only Epic but Lyric as well. Conversely, the more recent the terminology, the better it suits the Epic alone—specifically the Homeric end product. [29] If we adopt a teleological view of the Iliad and Odyssey as the culmination of a long tradition, then the intuitions of Giambattista Vico on Homer will prove to be more fruitful in this regard than the labors of early analysts like l’abbé d’Aubignac or even F. A. Wolf. [30] A unique epic form would have developed from multiple lyric forms within the social framework of performer-audience interaction. In the acme of this epic form, the reasoning goes, we should expect various stages of this evolution to be visible in the various references to the social framework. The point is, when Epic looks at Epic, it is forced to talk about itself in terms which are at times still suitable to Lyric as well.

Needless to say, the evolution of Greek Epic {11|12} is distinctive in content as well as form, and the medium itself underscores its awareness of its own distinction. For example, in the first book of the Odyssey, Telemachos refers to the bard Phemios’s treatment of the theme of The Return of the Achaeans (ʼΑχαιῶν νόcτον: α 326) as a ‘song’ which is the ‘newest’ and therefore popular with audiences (α 351f):

τὴν γὰρ ἀοιδὴν μᾶλλον ἐπικλείουc’ ἄνθρωποι
ἥ τιc ἀκουόντεccι νεωτάτη ἀμφιπέληται

“men would rather continue the praise of that song
which is newest for the listeners”

Even if Greek Epic is a newer form than Lyric, the attested archaic meters of Lyric fail to be associated with a formulaic system of the sort that characterizes Epic. Since the evidence of Homeric Epic conditions us to think of formula as a correlate of meter, this apparent lack of a formulaic system in Lyric causes some worry. Are we to think of the surviving lyric meters as archaic rhythms without archaic diction? Are they empty shells from the standpoint of traditional phraseology? The extenuating factor here is attestation. By the time Greek Lyric is actually attested, even the dynamic art of Epic—let us call it oral composition—is already moribund if not dead. [32] Once the formulaic system breaks down, it is no longer possible to compose while you recite and recite while you compose. [33] Yet the epic genre by no means loses its traditional phraseology overnight, as it {13|14} were. The diction of a distinctly non-oral production like the mock-epic Battle of Frogs and Mice, [34] which may well be roughly contemporaneous with the lyrics of Sappho, is essentially parallel with Homeric diction. [35] Thus I would argue that even if the lyric diction of someone like Sappho may not be strictly formulaic, it could still depend heavily on earlier formulaic systems that had been appropriate to her archaic meters. In her composition known as The Wedding of Hektor and Andromache, which is the largest piece of Sapphic narrative so far attested, there are numerous traces of traditional diction which is not only appropriate to her traditional lyric meter but also independent of epic hexameter. [36] Among traditional expressions in this poem, we find κλέοc ἄφθιτον.

Once we are in the position to define the metrical context of κλέοc ἄφθιτον in terms of Greek Lyric and Epic combined, we will have to compare it with the metrical context of śráva(s) ákṣitam in the Rig-Veda. Here the strictly formulaic considerations found in the Greek portion of our study cannot be applied directly. In fact, I will refrain from ever using the word ‘formula’ in referring directly to Rig-Vedic phraseology, despite its impressive archaism and internal consistency. The edifice of the Rig-Vedic hymns is built on a formidable set of mnemonic devices designed for the transmission {15|16} of old fixed texts over immense stretches of time. I have little doubt that some layers of the primordial texts were once oral compositions, but we have to reckon with the factor of transmission. If we use Lord’s sensible criteria, [38] a truly ‘oral’ tradition is one in which every performance generates a new composition. The factor which remains a constant is the singer’s repertory of formulas. The Vedic genre operates on a different and far stricter principle. The Vedas are a vast collection of hymns devolved from prayers, and prayers are a genre which encourages fixed performances tailored for each sacral occasion or need. In short, we are dealing with an art-form grounded in religion. [39] The {16|17} ostensible audience is divine, not human, so that even human comprehension is not a prime consideration. Words in a prayer might no longer be understood by us mortals, but the prayer remains efficacious and so the words must be right. [40] As we compose new prayers, we will re-use incomprehensible elements even at the risk of distorting their original meaning or grammar. Granted, secular poets also use incomprehensible traditional elements, but they cannot keep their audience if they go beyond mere flavoring of their diction with arcane language. There is no such compunction in Vedic ritual, where arcane language is a precious heirloom which keeps on inspiring language that is even more arcane. [41] My point remains that the Rig-Vedic hymns are a chronologically varied set of fixed texts inspired by other fixed texts, all of them transmitted orally over many centuries. [42]

There might be some who worry about the possibility of coincidence. Could it be that the {18|19} adjectives ἄφθιτον and ákṣitam just happen to be chosen for the nouns κλέοc and śrávas, so that all we have is an accidental convergence of cognates? In the Epilogue, I have devised a counter-argument inspired by Parry’s discoveries about the function of fixed epithets. To put it simply, if we survey all the contexts of ἄφθιτο- and ákṣita-, we see an overarching function in this epithet which is singularly appropriate to the noun which it describes. We will see that the epithet + noun combination meant something special and that this special meaning is essentially the same in both Greek and Indic. Form and content match in my reconstruction of *klewos n̥dhgwhitom.

Already at this point, I should note that I will use two idiosyncratic terms which call for particular attention because of their importance for certain stages of my approach. I owe to Saussure the concept of distinguishing the synchronic from the diachronic. [50] From the synchronic point of view, we see a structure as it exists in a concrete time and space; from the diachronic point of view, we see it evolving in the abstract. For my very first application of these terms, I take this opportunity to cite a general definition of meter which to my mind merits special consideration: “The metrical pattern is a copy, a mimicry, a counterfeit without intention to deceive, of {20|21} the basic elements of our language and of their order. When this metrical pattern and a set of words or phrases are placed in conjunction, a tension exists between them, a strained state of mutual relations; and the language, when we read it as part of a poem, has been strained into something different, into a resemblance to an imitation. It is thus partly imitation itself, and it is this which makes it an art.” [51] My own work on meter seeks to add another dimension to this definition by the application of a synchronic/diachronic perspective. I suggest that meter and its poetic language are indeed an imitation of natural language on the synchronic level, but that they can be an actual outgrowth of natural language on the diachronic level. Throughout my monograph, I will seek opportunities to support this claim with evidence from early (even preliterate) phases of Greek and Indic versification.

Mention of claims and evidence brings me to the final point of my introduction. I wish to be the first to admit that I need and seek more evidence for the theories which I offer. And yet, obviously, the immediate availability of evidence is a factor to consider. On one extreme, I have been able to adduce a multitude of data, {21|22} not just the example of κλέοc ἄφθιτον (ἔcται), for my theories on formula vs. meter and on the origins of Greek hexameter. On the other extreme, the theory that cognate poetic phraseology matches cognate meters in Indo-European languages is here supported mainly by one set of comparanda, Greek κλέοc ἄφθιτον and Indic śráva(s) ákṣitam. This particular restriction to one set, however, is not so much for want of other possible examples as for reasons of scope. At the present stage of research, I submit, monographlength inquiries are needed to explore adequately the cognate metrical features that may be latent in each set of cognate poetic phraseology. [52] With the help of more evidence, to be sure, I can expect to revise many of my hypotheses and perhaps also renounce some. For the time being, however, I feel eager to share my own findings up to now, such as they are. Perhaps it is at this point that I should also make a comment on my mode of presentation. In instances where I worked especially hard on the wording of a given hypothesis, I recorded my formulation in italics. {22|23} I did so not to express any confidence about solutions, but rather, to suggest the importance of the problem under consideration. I have similar feelings about the overall intent of my work, and I can only hope that the reader will be indulgent and interested.


[ back ] 1. Meillet 1923.

[ back ] 2. For an eloquent account of these methods, see Meillet 1925.

[ back ] 3. Kuhn 1853:467.

[ back ] 4. For an extremely valuable analytical and bibliographical survey, see Schmitt 1967:61-102. For semantic refinements, see pp. 229-261 below. The phonological complexities of the reconstruction * n̥-dhgwhi-tom are discussed in detail by Burrow 1959b; see also Burrow 1959a.

[ back ] 5. Jakobson 1952.

[ back ] 6. Watkins 1963.

[ back ] 7. Ibid.

[ back ] 8. Cole 1969.

[ back ] 9. Cf., e.g., Dale. Note too the skepticism of Maas, as in his book on Greek meter 1962:3.

[ back ] 10. Wilamowitz 1921:96-99.

[ back ] 11. Cf. Pfeiffer 1968:181-188, 203-208.

[ back ] 12. Oldenberg 1888, Arnold 1905.

[ back ] 13. Dale 1969 (= 1963):178.

[ back ] 14. Arnold 1905:166f.

[ back ] 15. Meillet 1923:60.

[ back ] 16. Watkins 1963:202n1.

[ back ] 17. Jakobson 1952:62-66.

[ back ] 18. Watkins 1963:199-202.

[ back ] 19. For a survey of Pherecratics, see Snell 1962:34-38. For the notation pher3d, see p. 47.

[ back ] 20. Wilamowitz 1921:98. See also Fraenkel (1918:179), who considers the restrictions on substituting spondees (– –) for dactyls (– ) in Aeolic meter to be a sign of archaism.

[ back ] 21. Reprinted in Bergk 1886:392-408.

[ back ] 22. Bergk 1886:392; cf. Watkins 1963:199.

[ back ] 23. Bergk 1886:393.

[ back ] 24. Parry 1971, Lord 1960, 1968. Parry had defined the formula as “an expression regularly used, under the same metrical conditions, to express an essential idea” (Parry 1928a:16; Parry 1971:13). This description is suitable as a working definition, provided that the phrase ‘under the same metrical conditions’ is not understood to mean ‘in the same position within the line’. For a discussion of the need for a redefinition, with bibliography of previous discussions, see Ingalls 1972. In this important article, Ingalls also argues for a new perspective on the metrical dimension of the formula.

[ back ] 25. See especially Page 1959:218-296; also Kirk 1960. Sometimes the information is datable as far back as the fifteenth century (see Page 218f, 232-238, 259).

[ back ] 26. See again Page 1959 and Kirk 1960; also Householder and Nagy 1972:738-743 (= 1973:19-23).

[ back ] 27. Pagliaro 1951, 1970. Although I find myself in disagreement with some of the specifics, I am eager to record my admiration for Pagliaro’s approach and for his collection of data.

[ back ] 28. For other interesting examples of this approach, see Harvey 1955a, Notopoulos 1964:16-18, Koller 1972.

[ back ] 29. See especially Pagliaro 1951:13. For example, ἀείδω ‘sing’ suits both Lyric and Epic, but ἐννέπω ‘recite’ suits Epic only. Also, Koller (1972) shows that ἔποc designates ‘dactylic hexameter’ in epic diction, while the plural ἔπεα designates ‘epic diction’ itself. On pp. 244-261, I will suggest that κλέοc was used in Epic for an exalted designation of lyric as well as epic form. In terms of my argument, κλέ(ε)α reflects a stage of evolution which is earlier than that reflected by ἔπεα.

[ back ] 30. Cf. Pagliaro 1970:39f.

[ back ] 31. Of course, the poet treats his narrative as reality too, not fiction; see p. 250n21 below. For more on the device of using ambivalent epithets which denote genre while also being pertinent to the narrative, see my discussion of Homeric παλαίφατοc in ‘Perkūnas and Perunŭ’ (Festschrift H. Güntert, forthcoming). Such artistic devices help us perceive the Homeric poems from the standpoint of performance, not just composition. Note too that when a Homeric figure utters an ἔποc, it is a ‘statement’ for him inside the narrative but a ‘dactylic hexameter’, an ideal sentence, for us outside the narrative (cf. Koller 1972). Of course, ideal form may then be matched by ideal content. Thus the idealized language of epic diction (on which see pp. 143f below) portrays an idealized poet like Demodokos (cf. Notopoulos 1964:16-18). For a discussion of the early Greek artist’s self-consciousness about his art as opposed to reality, see Treu 1955; also Koller 1954 and Detienne 1967.

[ back ] 32. Cf. Page 1964 and Dover 1964.

[ back ] 33. Lord 1960.

[ back ] 34. At line 3, the poet mentions that he is writing on a tablet placed on his knees.

[ back ] 35. See Kirk 1966b, especially p. 161; throughout this article, Kirk shows how traditional diction persists in ‘post-oral’ epic composition—even at a relatively late period. (He prefers to date the Battle of Frogs and Mice, among others, at an even later period than is generally assumed.)

[ back ] 36. See pp. 118-139.

[ back ] 37. Parry 1928b; for refinements in terms of Fränkel’s colon-theory (1960), see Ingalls 1972.

[ back ] 38. Lord 1960.

[ back ] 39. Cf. Thieme 1957:53: “The longer I study the RV, the more strongly I feel the urge to look for a serious, genuinely religious content in its hymns. There is an overwhelming prima facie evidence that the poetry of the RV in the bulk—and certainly as far as its oldest layers are concerned—was meant to accompany sacrificial rites, just like the Yäšts of the Avesta, to which it bears a specially close relationship. Above everything else, I should think, we have to acknowledge and to take into account the poet’s deep conviction that it is his poem which renders the sacrifice efficient.” Cf. also Thieme 1957:54n2: “Rig-Vedic art may be described as a sort of artistic magic, or magical art” (after Edgerton 1929:106). Thieme’s concise article, in my opinion, is one of the most valuable statements on the literary and linguistic nature of the Rig-Veda. In addition, the author reacts to the ideas of A. Bergaigne (1884) on Vedic exegesis and translation, of M. Bloomfield (1925:159) on the ‘prose central idea’ and the ‘Vedic haze’, of L. Renou himself (1955) on the ‘pénombre’ of artistic values in the Rig-Veda, etc.

[ back ] 40. Cf. Mauss 1968:383: “Car la prière n’agit que par le mot et le mot est ce qu’il y a de plus formel au monde. Jamais donc le pouvoir efficace de la forme n’est aussi apparent.” As the Indic Code tells us (Manu II 84), libations and sacrifices are perishable, but the sacred formula (brahman) is imperishable. Cf. Mauss 1968:383n68. Cf. also Gonda 1963.

[ back ] 41. Note that once the prayer enters ritual, it ceases to be individual (Mauss 1968:384).

[ back ] 42. To sum up: “La prière est évidemment un rite oral” (Mauss 1968:412). For a perceptive study of Homeric prayer, which functions as a sub-genre within a genre, see Muellner 1973.

[ back ] 43. Ap. Pick 143.

[ back ] 44. Parry 1971, Lord 1960.

[ back ] 45. Hainsworth 1968, Hoekstra 1957, 1965, Edwards 1971.

[ back ] 46. Meillet 1923, 1925.

[ back ] 47. Jakobson 1952, Watkins 1963. Cf. also Kuryłowicz 1961, 1966, 1970.

[ back ] 48. Wilamowitz 1921, Snell 1962, Maas 1962, Allen 1966; Oldenberg 1888, Arnold 1905.

[ back ] 49. La Drière 1959, 1965.

[ back ] 50. Saussure 1916:117; for an important adjustment, see Jakobson 1952:1f.

[ back ] 51. Thompson 1961:171. On the assumption that the art of painting imitates reality, Simonides went on to describe poetry as painting which can talk and painting as poetry which cannot; see Detienne 1967:105-109.

[ back ] 52. I draw encouragement from the work of associates like A. L. Bergren (1973) on Homeric ἐπὶ πείρατα γαίηc and Alcaic ἀπὸ πειράτων (vs. Rig-Vedic cognates). The metrical shapes of these phrases correspond to Homeric κλέοc ἄφθιτον ἔcται and Sapphic κλέοc ἄφθιτον. See also Muellner 1973 on Homeric γένοc εὔχομαι εῖʼναι and other related formulas. I should also stress my own indebtedness to the prodigious groundwork of Schmitt (1967) and to the ideas of Pagliaro (1951, 1961, 1970) and Durante (1958, 1960, 1962, 1971).