Friday, January 08, 2016


The Most Beautiful Line in Homer?

Samuel Eliot Bassett (1873-1936), The Poetry of Homer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1938), pp. 156-157:
The pleasurable momentary experiences which stir Homer to melody have not received much attention. No one seems to have looked for his most beautiful verse. I propose for this honor a verse from the picture of the herd on the shield of Achilles, Σ 576 [i.e. Iliad 18.576]. The lowing cows were hurrying from the barnyard to their pasture,
By the river murmuring ever, by the slender, waving reeds,

πὰρ ποταμὸν κελάδοντα, παρὰ ῥοδανὸν δονακῆα.
Formally considered, the second half-verse almost repeats the first, as we see if we write the halves independently,

Much of the formal beauty depends on the word "almost." παρά almost repeats πάρ. Both verses are made up of three words, each longer than the preceding, but only the second is a perfect ῥόπαλον of 2+3+4 syllables. The vowels α and ο alternate throughout each verse—almost, but not quite—and the order is inverted after the first pair of alternations. Thus the most "vocal" articulate sound, α, is placed in the opening and closing syllables. There are no harsh-sounding consonants, and only one sonant mute, δ, occurring thrice. Of the twenty consonants, ten are liquids. (But this is to anatomize beauty!) The verse is otherwise pure poetry. It is quite unnecessary for the action, which is given in the preceding verse. It is rather the overflowing of the poet's feeling. The asyndeton shows this: how much the verse would lose if the conjunction ἰδέ were read in place of παρά! The poet calls upon the ear to hear the river murmuring, and then the eye to see the slender reeds waving; both "murmuring" and "waving" give life to the picture. The selection of two universal characteristics gives the picture a lyric quality, but without sentimentality. Finally, the poet does not attempt to catalogue the features of the scene; he stops where we would be glad to have him continue.
Related post: Some Lines from Vergil's Eclogues.

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