Saturday, January 14, 2006

Golden Latin Artistry

I decided recently to read through L.P. Wilkinson's book Golden Latin Artistry straight through to get an idea of the book as a whole and to re-introduce myself, as it were, to Latin verse and prose.

As it turned out, some aspects of the book were not even re-introductions for me, but introductions, and I especially include here the extensive and helpful discussions of prose rhythm. In this section, as in the others, Wilkinson demonstrates a remarkable knack for synthesizing ancient evidence from Aristotle, Cicero, and sundry grammarians, along with modern discussions representing a potpourri of languages and spanning the long range of scholarship from the 18th century to his own contemporary day.

The three parts of the book are: 'Sounds', subdivided into 'Pronunciation', 'Verbal Music', and 'Expressiveness'; 'Rhythms', subdivided into 'Verse Rhythm' and 'Prose Rhythm'; and 'Structure', subdivided into 'Periodic Prose' and 'Architectonics of Verse'. He closes with two appendices, 'Rival Theories to the Pulse-Accent Theory of Latin Dactylic Verse' and 'Some Modern Theories of Latin Prose Rhythm'.

The concerns of the book are largely formal, and often touch on topics which lend themselves to subjectivity. Throughout, however, Wilkinson displays an admirable level-headedness and restraint in presenting his views. His baseline standard with which to make judgments seems to be what he calls 'aesthetic principles'. Sometimes these principles could be better defined, but most of the time, I think, the reader has a fairly good idea of what he is referring to.

In addition to his survey of prose rhythm, probably most helpful was his discussion of the 'Pulse-Accent theory' of dactylic verse. Though I don't know much about this outside of what I read in this book, I found it rather convincing.

It is my observation that this book should be required reading for every student of Latin literature. The discussions are lucid, accessible, well-stocked with examples, and give a very solid introduction to the formal features one should look for when reading the Latin classics. His style is warm and engaging, and the broad scope of the book combined with its thorough discussion will continue to give Golden Latin Artistry a great deal of staying power. For these reasons, I must disagree with J.P. Elder, who states in his heartily endorsing review that Golden Latin Artistry is not an important book, but is a very good one. Because of its usefulness and clarity, GLA strikes me as indispensable both for Latin literary pedagogy and, more generally, for Latin literary appreciation.

I close with a passage from 'Appendix 1' on hexameter caesuras that demonstrates Wilkinson's enjoyable style:

Lucian Mueller opined that the 'strong' (2 1/2) caesura, as in

Bella per Emathios//plus quam civilia campos,

was preferred by the Romans because it came as nearly as possible in the middle of the line (yet the 2 3/4 caesure is still nearer, and was preferred by many of the Greeks; and 3, which would be exactly in the middle, is avoided by all); also because the first member (if dactylic) would, if repeated, make a pentameter, 'second only among the pure jewels that compose the crown of Greek metres'; for example,

Bella per Emathios bella per Emathios;

and thirdly, because the second resultant memeber was in itself a metrical line, the paroemiac, 'which shines with an elegance of its own'; for example,

plus quam civilia campos.

He might just as well have said that he did not know the reason.

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