Sound, Sense, and Rhythm: Listening to Greek and Latin Poetry

Sound, Sense, and Rhythm: Listening to Greek and Latin Poetry

Sound, Sense, and Rhythm: Listening to Greek and Latin Poetry

Sound, Sense, and Rhythm: Listening to Greek and Latin Poetry


This book concerns the way we read--or rather, imagine we are listening to--ancient Greek and Latin poetry. Through clear and penetrating analysis Mark Edwards shows how an understanding of the effects of word order and meter is vital for appreciating the meaning of classical poetry, composed for listening audiences.

The first of four chapters examines Homer's emphasis of certain words by their positioning; a passage from the Iliad is analyzed, and a poem of Tennyson illustrates English parallels. The second considers Homer's techniques of disguising the break in the narrative when changing a scene's location or characters, to maintain his audience's attention. In the third we learn, partly through an English translation matching the rhythm, how Aeschylus chose and adapted meters to arouse listeners' emotions. The final chapter examines how Latin poets, particularly Propertius, infused their language with ambiguities and multiple meanings. An appendix examines the use of classical meters by twentieth-century American and English poets.

Based on the author's Martin Classical Lectures at Oberlin College in 1998, this book will enrich the appreciation of classicists and their students for the immense possibilities of the languages they read, translate, and teach. Since the Greek and Latin quotations are translated into English, it will also be welcomed by non-classicists as an aid to understanding the enormous influence of ancient Greek and Latin poetry on modern Western literature.


When I received the invitation to give the Martin Classical Lectures, I felt that I did not want to devote the whole series to what has been my main research subject, the poetry of Homer. During my life as a university teacher I have also developed a number of other interests, usually arising from courses I have taught, and about two of them in particular I thought I had something to say that might be useful to my peers in the profession: the ways in which Aeschylus uses lyric meters in his choruses to convey a meaning and a mood, and the ways Roman poets (Propertius in particular) availed themselves of the special characteristics of the Latin language to produce certain effects. These topics, it seemed to me, could be linked with two others from Homeric studies that were much in my mind at the time: the order and positioning of words in the verse, and the interconnection of successive scenes (and hence the significance of the book divisions). All four were centered upon the way one should try to imagine oneself listening to ancient poetry, rather than reading it from the page; and all four had strongly affected my teaching of these and other authors in undergraduate classes, and might be of interest to others in such circumstances.

When I delivered the lectures in Oberlin in February 1998, I gave them in the chronological order of authors discussed. in preparing them for publication I at first thought of abandoning this simple sequence in favor of one that progressed from word order in Homer to word order in Latin poetry, then on to word rhythm (or meter) in Aeschylus, and finally to larger-scale issues of Homer's ways of keeping his hearers' attention while passing from one scene to another. However, readers of this version were not impressed by this arrangement of the material, and complained that the transitions between the chapters were weak—they were obviously thinking the book should be a unified whole, and wanted a better synthesis of the parts. I have therefore returned to the sequence of the lectures, which (besides having the advantage of familiarity) produces another, perhaps clearer, progression of topics. Now our examination moves from Homer's art in arranging the sequence of his words to his skill in linking the succession of his scenes, and then on to how Aeschylus drives home his meaning by his use of meter (i.e., music and dance) and how Roman poets use the quite different features of the Latin language for their own poetic purposes. Since most Classics teachers are involved with all the authors I discuss, I hope they will read through the whole volume; but the chapters can be read independently if desired.

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