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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Arma virumque cano

All right, today we're going to jump into the wayback machine and hit the city of Troy as it's burning, destroyed by the Greeks after a great many years of war. This event spawned a slew of epic poems about people in boats having misadventures with gods and monsters on the way home; today I want to talk about The Aeneid
So Virgil writes The Aeneid in the first century AD. It comes along long after Homer's Odyssey and Apollonius' Argonautica, and it seems like kind-of a knock-off, I would imagine. Virgil clearly has an agenda in writing this - the work is commissioned by Augustus Caesar, and Virgil's pretty intent on using the work to flatter him.
But here's where things get wacky. It's not just about the story. Virgil used a meter called dactylic hexameter, in which each line has six "feet," either dactyls or spondees. A dactyl has a long vowel sound, followed by another long vowel or two short vowel sounds. A spondee is two long vowel sounds, and before you ask, no, I don't remember the difference between a spondee's two long vowels and the two long vowels of a dactyl. Latin class was a long time ago, and I wasn't paying attention.
But digest that for a minute. This is just how people wrote... hundreds or thousands of lines of this careful, measured lines, never deviating from the rigid rules. I remember how, in class, we were supposed to diagram the meter - figure out which feet were dactyls and which were spondees, and I couldn't even do that. Plus, if you'll remember, there was little or no punctuation and sometimes there weren't even spaces between the words. It seems a miracle anyone could read it (I certainly couldn't), much less write in that meter.
Then there are all these crazy figures of speech. My favorite example is one in which the wayward Trojans make land. Aeneas' friend, faithful Achates, makes a fire using flint, and the text reads: 

First, good Achates, with repeated strokes 
Of clashing flints, their hidden fire provokes
Which in Latin reads: 
Ac primum silic scintillam excudit
succeptiqe ignem foliis, atque arida circum

Notice the repetition of the s and c sounds, the sound of flints clashing. How cool is that? And we're not just talking about a poem or a story; he did this over twelve books. It took us an entire year in Latin class just to read one of them. 
All of which leads me to wonder, are we getting dumber? If it used to be that writers just up and wrote entire epics following an impossibly complicated meter, and educated folk could just up and read them, what does that say about us?

5 comments:

Cap'n Ergo "XL+1" Jinglebollocks said...

Among other things, since it has to be translated it means that we're not really getting the full bang of the language and song-like metre of the original (which is why I'm having all of my Stephen King books translated into French; they loose something in the original).

HAVING SAID THAT, though, I remember there was a new translation of the Oddessey which was controversial because the translator said bugger the whole verse thing and put the story into PROSE. It UPSET people, even though there's already 50,000 English versions of the epic available already. However, when they got Ian McKellen to read all 15 hours of it, people suddenly became more forgiving-- at least the general public did, which meant that more Average Joe's were probably reading the whole (or most of) the thing for the first time in their lives.

Which asks a similar question: to GET people to read Th' Classics, do we have to "dumb them down" as well?

And as for the question of are WE dumb for not writing in hextamater... Well, I'm not sure. Certainly we dont' CARE about such things anymore, but you and I can also drive a car and use MS Word and FaceBook, which would cause them Greeks to, like, totally freak out.

Cap'n Ergo "XL+1" Jinglebollocks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cap'n Ergo "XL+1" Jinglebollocks said...

Oh, and the word verification for the above was "SNEXPA." A sniglet for all lovers of Latin if'n I e'er saw one...

bearkate said...

I've got a theory that the artistic part of the writing is related to the high rates of illiteracy and the lack of mass printing. You could make your book a work of art because there weren't 500 other books coming out that week. There was more time to pick and choose the phrase with flair. Plus since so much was ordered by a patron there wasn't the need to write to the lowest common denominator of current public taste. But for the record I could be biased, I'm not keen on the ancient classics.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

Yeah - the thing about rigid rules when it comes to poetry is that they don't really _do_ anything - Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" is no less touching for not being in iambic pentameter...

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