Saturday, February 02, 2013


An Epicure in Words

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), The Poet at the Breakfast-Table, II:
I am afraid I am becoming an epicure in words, which is a bad thing to be, unless it is dominated by something infinitely better than itself. But there is a fascination in the mere sound of articulated breath; of consonants that resist with the firmness of a maid of honor, or half or wholly yield to the wooing lips; of vowels that flow and murmur, each after its kind; the peremptory b and p, the brittle k, the vibrating r, the insinuating s, the feathery f, the velvety v, the bell-voiced m, the tranquil broad a, the penetrating e, the cooing u, the emotional o, and the beautiful combinations of alternate rock and stream, as it were, that they give to the rippling flow of speech,—there is a fascination in the skilful handling of these, which the great poets and even prose-writers have not disdained to acknowledge and use to recommend their thought. What do you say to this line of Homer as a piece of poetical full-band music? I know you read the Greek characters with perfect ease, but permit me, just for my own satisfaction, to put it into English letters:—
Aiglē pamphanöosa di' aitheros ouranon ike!
as if he should have spoken in our poorer phrase of
Splendor far shining through ether to heaven ascending.
That Greek line, which I do not remember having heard mention of as remarkable, has nearly every consonantal and vowel sound in the language. Try it by the Greek and by the English alphabet; it is a curiosity. Tell me that old Homer did not roll his sightless eyeballs about with delight, as he thundered out these ringing syllables! It seems hard to think of his going round like a hand-organ man, with such music and such thought as his to earn his bread with.
In Greek characters, from Iliad 2.458:
αἴγλη παμφανόωσα δι᾽ αἰθέρος οὐρανὸν ἷκε.

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