Homer. The most famous writer in history, with a legacy spanning millennia. The inspiration, perhaps, for Alexander’s conquest of Persia, ushering in the Hellenistic Golden Age of ancient Greece, though his empire scarcely survived him by a day. He is not often imitated, for it is no small thing to write an epic poem. But I thought I would learn to write in quantitative dactylic hexameter. And a few others have experimented with quantitative verse in the English language, from Sidney and his Countess of Pembroke to Tennyson, to name the more well-known. But they studied Virgil, the Latin incarnation of Homer, and learned very little Greek.
In his analysis of English Renaissance experiments with quantitative meter, Derek Attridge shows that the rules of scansion adopted from the Latin were highly artificial, and the notion that quantitative scansion reflected the duration of a syllable when pronounced was academic dogma and not a reflection of how Latin poetry was read aloud in England or in ancient Rome. Latin vernacular poetry was accentual-syllabic, and Attridge questions whether quantitative meters modeled on ancient Greek verse forms were audible to native speakers. Only in the singing of ancient Greek verse can we be sure quantitative meter was audible, because Greek music was notated in pitch signs alone, with the meter of the lyric giving the duration of the notes. Duration was not prominent in the spoken language of ancient Greece either.
The Lily, the lexicon of the English schoolboy, acquainted him with English pronunciation of Latin and the intricacies of scanning this mispronounced Latin in quantitative verse, and so the Lily was the cornerstone of Renaissance thinking on classical meter. It makes you think twice about selling back your textbooks to examine this paradoxical literary legacy. In the Babylonian scribe’s Lily, “the geographical section begins with a list of fields, followed by cities, regions and countries, buildings, mountains, rivers, canals, dikes and stars.” Attridge devotes an entire book to the subject not because of the literary greatness of quantitative verse in the English language, but because for Renaissance writers, quantitative meter was the first true meter they recognized as such, and its examination was to furnish reflection on poetic form that would help them elevate the vernacular verse-form, accentual-syllabic poetry, to high art. The fascination of quantitative meter for poets of the English Renaissance belonged to a humanist tradition that exalted classical antiquity as an inspiration to both art and science, free of the muddling scholastic traditions of monastic Europe’s legacy from the Dark Ages. And because of the Lily’s inaudible rules of scansion, the Renaissance classicist’s training “led him far away from any conception of metre as a rhythmic succession of sounds, akin to the beat of a ballad-monger or the thumping of a drum, into a world pervaded by a sense of subtle intelligence and high civilization, where words are anatomized and charted with a precision and a certainty unknown in the crude vernacular” (Attridge 2008). “It was an intellectual apprehension, not an aural one;” or as Tennyson said of his hendecasyllabics:
“Hard, hard, hard is it, only not to tumble,
So fantastical is the dainty meter [..]
As some rare little rose, a piece of inmost
Horticultural art, or half coquette-like
Maiden, not to be greeted unbenignly” (1863).
This Alexander poem is in a Greek “elegiac” meter, except that the meter is accentual-syllabic, scanned the usual way. It is a meter of alternating lines that allows free substitution between dactyls and spondees (here, trochees, as it is rare to have a “true spondee” in English pronunciation) in most positions. I have some fan poetry in quantitative meter as well, but I’ll share this example first because the accentual rhythm is more audible, and I like the structure of elegiac meter very well, neither sing-song in regularity nor uncharted free verse.
We were opponents as children. On the gymnasium floor I
wrestled with you as your prince. You were the strongest of us.
Pledging that I would defeat you one day, I became your devout friend.
Myths stoked passions we shared, brilliant ambitions we showed.
Maps of the world teased our inklings of destiny, framed by the unknown,
peopled by fabulous tribes, traveled by heroes and gods.
I would discover the Amazons, conquer the Caucasus, capture
jungles whose rains fed the Nile, build Alexandrias there.
Eagles would feed on the armies destroyed in my name and the sun would
set on the kingdoms that stood, ancient and proud, in my way.
I would take you to the ends of the earth to exalt our potential.
We would face giants as one, carve out a way to the East.
You would bring balance and truth to my counsel, a statesman to conquered
cities, a builder of peace. You would remake what I won.
I would not trust my own mother as I trusted you when the time came.
I would abandon my roots, ruling alone but for you.
In the dark hour my father remarried, hearing my mother’s
grim paranoia insist: I must now father a son,
I felt my heart pull away from her urgent agenda, and gently
spoke of your honesty, love, true admiration. Enough!
No Macedonian family guarded my interests, no princess
rallied a tribe to my side – you were the one with my trust.
Neither would I make alliance by marriage in Babylon, not while
Darius lived. I would wait, follow him into the East,
conquer his empire, conquer the next, until India, Persia,
Egypt, Arabia, Rome, Carthage and Europe joined Greece.
You understood. I could turn to you there in the strangest of worlds, speak
openly, question my birth, solemnly let myself go.
Where am I now in a Babylon guarded by whispering generals,
where is my perfect friend? Now I am truly a king.
Night is a gulf we can travel alone but the weight of the water,
pregnant with dreams, pulls us down. I dream of waking to you.
The following example of fan poetry in quantitative Sapphic stanzas is one of my earlier takes on what the rules of duration in English pronunciation might be, closer to the Greek rules than the Lily but still more orthographic than phonological. I give it to show the nature of inaudible meter, invisible to the untrained eye.
Deep in confidence, lowered voices ringing
with certainty we would eclipse the myths the next day,
we exchanged our promises like two lions,
rich in our sworn fates.
Achilles and Patroclus – transcendent friends,
confidants and warriors, aggressive and loyal,
joined from childhood – rivaled us, drove us to rise,
Death in marriage sweetened our bond – a last kiss
sealed our friendship. Tears did not supersede true
confidence in strengthened love and accepted
duty in kingship.
You could stand against your own horde in raging
graphic anguish, hateful of luxuriant
wealth, nostalgia, and the modesty soldiers
prefer to greatness,
You could reject their dogged pleas to go home,
face an army desperate and unflinching,
shame them, show your breast, give no quarter, dare their
With a passion equaled by no one, peerless,
feared – but I would keep the men fearful, standing
firm, protecting their unloved king from their blows.
I, too, am fearless.
Struck down fighting India’s fabled monsters,
I knew I heard you in my soul, consoling
and alive amidst the red slaughter, breathing
thunder, a hero.
Worlds have remade their images for you, crowns
and gods greet you with solemn omens, oceans
bind your kingdom and the stars know a place where
you will live, timeless,
Part of human destiny. You look upward,
sky gods dare you – take the horizon, chase Zeus!
You give no ground. You are invincible, bold
Like a daemon – and yet a friend to me, frank,
tender, and true. I will still be your friend long
after you have forgotten glory, lost where
Elysian asphodel shines too yellow
and poplar forests
Keep the eyes moving up, consumed in fierce light.
I will keep your counsel in darkness, before
dawn gives you your storied entrance, a lightning
bolt on a black horse –
I will see you raise a son. I will keep you
bright as pale September comes, burnished
like a helmet wrought in red gold, your youth with
you in your wild heart.
I alone can tease out your embarrassment,
tickle pride in you, set out to torment you
until you smile. We have a private life, two
made as one, perfect.
You alone know me in the East. Love knows no
stranger story. We are apart too, others
stand so near to you, in a circle, watching.
You can still find me.
Here, when we remember all, crowns are pointless.
I am here for you in the quiet before
night dims and dawn softly collects your cities
under her long skirts.
You were just a prince when, at Phillip’s wedding,
you accused the king of disgrace, a drunkard
become helpless and far from conquering great
Persia as he boasts.
I fought for you, shared your abrupt banishment.
We were brothers, joined by the virtues we sought
to prove we cherished in ourselves, our lights and
eyes, spirit and truth.
We were right – we conquered the Persian Empire.
Achilles and Patroclus, or perhaps their
ghosts come back to feel the sun and the wind once
more, to exhale, free.
Use my strength today, my one friend. Tomorrow
I may be beyond the cosmos, gone to you.
You can remind me now of childhood games, dreams,
future conquests, myths
We will be a part of, the captive distance
worked out reliably inside your mind – speak,
I am fading fast but can hear your voice rise
and fall, advancing
Quickly, knowing time draws down with a vengeance.
I would stand beside your unequalled brightness
for all time if I could live long enough – keep
me close when night falls.
Please, let me stand forever by your side where
you can hear my voice as well – don’t let my death
be a parting. We can complete the story,
history, myth, fate.