Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Hendecasyllabics and the Epigrammatic Tradition

The question was posed whether the hendecasyllabics of Catullus are epigrams, and it was noted that Martial's are.

I thought I'd take up the question, and started with the meter. As others have noted any eleven syllable line can be called hendecayllabic, and I quickly found reference to both Sapphic and Phalaecean hendecasyllabics.

The Phalaecean is the meter of our poet, yet solid information is hard to come by. Even harder to find is information on the man who lent his name, Phalaecus. The helpful little handbook on Greek and Latin meter by Rosenmeyer, Ostwald and Halporn (is that the order?) is not helpful here. In fact you'd think no Greek had ever used the meter, but you'd be wrong.

As it happens the meter was used considerably throughout the Alexandrian period, and according the West in his Greek Metre was the only Aeolic meter in constant use through to the imperial period. It wasn't until I'd turned to West that I found more than a hint that the meter preceded Catullus. (That's not entirely true. Some journal article on JSTOR mentioned a Phalaecean in a sepulchral inscription, published by Wilamowitz, but that was my best lead till West.)

West pointed me toward a number of extant Greek epigrams in the phalaecean meter, and his list included two in the A.P. which came as a surprise to everyone as most of the collection seems to be in elegiacs. This has probably led many to the conclusion that elegiacs are the sole or the best meter for epigrams, though this ignores the plethora of verse inscriptions and epigrams in hexameter.

But I digress. On to the elusive Phalaecus. He's not an easy figure to track down, but through L'Année philologique I was able to find an excellent article (one of only two on the subject) published in Greek! (Skiadas, A. D. - ὁ ποιητὴς Φάλαικος. EEAth 1967-1968 XVIII : 65-88.)

Skiadas says that Phalaecus was not the first to use the meter, but was the first to turn this Aeolic lyric measure to use in epigrams. Couple with the testimony on the meter's use and popularity as treated by West, this article goes a long toward establishing the meter as comfortably within the epigrammatic tradition.

If we turn back to Catullus carmen L, treated here previously, in light of Maria Carilli's 1979 article, in which she related that poem to a fragment of the Alexandrian epigrammatist Hedylus, everything will tie together nicely.(Carilli, M. G. "Rapporti tra Catullo e gli epigrammisti greci." RAAN 1979 LIV : 163-184.)

The imagery of the poetry exchange in carmen L echoes closely the kind of poetic affair treated in the Hedylus fragment: I suggest a light-hearted round of wine and erotic epigrams, though the subject could change with the occasion.

The important point for us however is that carmen L is written in hendecasyllabics: Phalaecean hendecasyllabics.

It is an epigram about the writing of epigrams in a largely forgotten epigrammatic meter. It would behoove us all to reconsider the arbitrary classification of Catullus' poems that calls these epigrams, and those something else.

Martial knew better than we.

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