Academic journal article Antichthon

Comic Metrical Signatures in Menander's Dyskolos

Academic journal article Antichthon

Comic Metrical Signatures in Menander's Dyskolos

Article excerpt

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Many scholars have commented on Menander's facility in alternating between tragic and comic forms of the iambic trimeter, and the subtle effects he creates thereby in manipulating the mood of a scene. But characteristically these effects are interpreted solely in dramatic terms, and the statements made are rather vague, at the most detailed (and rarely then) merely noting that in a given line a particular tone is created by the overall form of metre used.1 What I aim to show is that deliberate metrical manipulation of a quite different kind is also involved, and in order to appreciate better Menander's art we need to attend to the metrical form of individual words.

The overall effect which we can detect by these means we can perhaps call 'metametrics', an exploitation of metrical conventions that achieves an artistic end by invoking awareness of these very conventions. Menander is often regarded as a rather prosaic poet, whose linguistic effects are assumed to be mainly rhetorical or dramatic, but what follows should demonstrate his capacity for an essentially poetic achievement - essentially, since all poetry as such (as opposed, say, to rhetoric) solicits just this kind of metapoetic recognition of its linguistic artistry.

The usual approach first takes for granted that Menander is entitled to all the laxity of the form of iambic trimeter he has inherited from the comic tradition, and then identifies shifts to the more stringent tragic trimeter.2 There is no doubt that Menander does create some distinctive effects in this way. But in order to observe other kinds of effect it can be more helpful to take the reverse perspective and look for individual comic variations from the tragic metrical form. Such phenomena are not intrusions, of course, but rather genre-defining signatures inscribed into the verse at particular points. Thus I do not mean here to assert that the tragic form of the trimeter is a norm for Menander but just that adopting this approach enables us to focus on the relation of a given comic metrical phenomenon to the individual word or phrase in which it occurs, something invisible from the alternative perspective.

To approach Menander's versification with a view to identifying such comic metrical signatures is not to do something with no relation to what a contemporary audience would have listened for, heard, and given meaning to. After all, metrical phenomena are primarily audible, at least in orally performed poetry, and the distinctive presence of metrically paratragic passages in both Aristophanes and Menander indicates a tradition of theatrical recognition and interpretation of variations in metrical form on the Athenian comic stage. All that is involved here is a question of what range of metrical communication with the audience Menander engages in.

The audience will indeed have recognised some quasi-tragic lines, in conjunction with dramatic circumstance and features of linguistic context, such as heightened style indicating romantically or ethically greater seriousness of content. Nevertheless in other metrically quasi-tragic sequences there is no such correspondence with tone or circumstance, and the effect of some, in context, is even comic.3 Metrically speaking, such lines could be called 'non-comedic' or 'neutral', but as a concession to their formal identity with the metre of tragedy I shall continue to refer to all such lines in Menander as metrically 'quasi-tragic', although without prejudice to the question of their effect in a given context. One thing that should emerge incidentally in what follows is that a metrical context consisting of such quasi-tragic lines (notwithstanding any other functions they may also have) occasionally helps to foreground, by contrast, some of Menander's precise uses of the distinctive features of the comic trimeter: comic metrical signatures.4

More generally, nevertheless, the recognisability of, and effects created by, comic metrical signatures in Menander do not depend upon their textual foregrounding by a metrically quasi-tragic context. …

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