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SAPPHIC METRES

Introduction

The previous page gave an example of just why poetic meter is so important and so carefully studied: meter and genre are interrelated. If a poet tried to cast say, erotic poetry into epic meter for instance, the result would likely have been similar to the jarring effect of listening to a minor key song transposed into a major key, at best.1 A stronger clash between content and meter could go over quite badly, unless it was part of a comic play. A poet's works could also be sorted into "books" based on meter, as Sappho's were.2 Finally, ancient and modern scholars alike spent tremendous effort sorting out the different meters by different feet and larger syllable groups called cola ("colon" in the singular), then giving each type its own name. Thankfully, it isn't necessary to know too many of these in order to get acquainted with Sappho's meters.

Sappho made use of members of the family of aeolic meters, which could be used with any dialect of ancient greek, though Sappho used her own. As William Annis notes, aeolic meters are not described in terms of feet because each can be split into feet in more than one way. They can be described uniquely in terms of ten different cola, of which two will be discussed here. The unique feature of aeolic meters is that the anceps can be placed in the beginning or middle of a line, not just at the end. According to the Loeb volume3 providing the source greek text for this site, Sappho's works were divided according to the following nine categories:

  1. The Sapphic Stanza, 11 Syllable
  2. 14 Syllable
  3. 16 Syllable
  4. 12 Syllable
  5. Glyconic and Related Meters
  6. Ionic and Related Meters
  7. Iambic and Trochaic
  8. Dactylic
  9. Epithalamies (Wedding Songs) in Dactylic Hexameter

The amount evidence available to reconstruct these meters varies significantly between the first and ninth "books." The meters in the first three books have been reconstructed with great confidence, the eighth with some confidence, and the fourth and fifth mainly by conjecture. For books six and seven there is almost no evidence to go on.4 The surviving wedding songs are composed in various meters, or at least, they seem to be. Not only are they fragmentary,5 but there are interesting questions about their dialect that can't be answered unless more material is recovered. Therefore this metrical discussion will focus on the clearer evidence from books one to three and eight.

Sapphic Meters at Last!

Let's begin at last with the famous Sapphic stanza. It is made up of three lines, two of eleven syllables, the third extended by an adonean colon. Readers familiar with more scholarly treatments will know that this stanza is more often described as having four lines, with "no hiatus" allowed between the end of the third and beginning of the fourth. This means that a single word contains at least the eleventh syllable of the third line and the first syllable of the notional fourth, so that the lines can't be separated during recitation. If nothing else, this alternate explanation shows why cola were identified and named! Luckily, it is easier to see what this means by considering the metrical diagrams.

Version 1
1. ¯ ˘ ¯    x    ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯    x
2. ¯ ˘ ¯    x    ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯    x
3. ¯ ˘ ¯    x    ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯    x     ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ¯

Version 2
1. ¯ ˘ ¯    x   ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯    x
2. ¯ ˘ ¯    x   ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯    x
3. ¯ ˘ ¯    x   ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯    x    ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘

The adonean colon has the form   ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ¯.
Version 2 of the stanza shows a slight variant on it that remarkably, does not have its own name. In both versions of the stanza, the first anceps is long more often than it is short.

The fourteen syllable line is not altered to form stanzas, and has one basic shape:
x    x  ¯ ˘ ˘  ¯ ˘ ˘  ¯ ˘ ˘  ¯ ˘ ¯
The line must always end with a long syllable, which rather than limiting word choice, just means an otherwise short final syllable is lengthened in recitation.

The sixteen syllable line is set out in couplets, and has a similar shape:
x    x  ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯  ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯  ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯   ¯ ˘ ¯
Notice how the difference between these two types of line is created by the systematic addition of long syllables. As for the fourteen syllable line, the last syllable is always long.

Finally, the dactylic meter (a somewhat unfortunate name) has two versions:

Version 1
¯ ˘ ˘ ¯  ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯  ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯    ˘ ¯ ¯

Version 2
¯ ˘ ˘ ¯  ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯  ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯    ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯

Version 2 is based on interpretation of Bowie's highly compressed description. However, it is consistent with the option to drop the short syllable altogether when it falls between two macrons at the end of the real or notional line. That combination of syllables is known as a cretic.

Is This Needed to Read Sappho?

No, it's not absolutely necessary.6 Understanding meter provides great help with reading the poems correctly aloud, and is necessary for any attempt at a nuanced translation as the example from the Odyssey provided at the end of the previous section shows. Should you want or need to write poetry in any of these meters, whether in an ancient or any other language, you will need to be absolutely familiar with them. Otherwise, it is quite possible to ignore this material to begin with.

Footnotes

  1. For an actual example, try listening to the major key version of R.E.M.'s song "Losing My Religion" by MajorScaledTV at OpenCulture. It is quite strange to hear moody lyrics with what sounds like a now cheerful melody.
  2. Based on the various ancient comments on her works, it appears Sappho's work was sorted in this way by copyists. There is a whole world of questions remaining around what it meant to order a copy of Sappho's poems in the ancient world. Editions were certainly not as standardized as they are today, and it is possible that wealthier buyers could request different arrangements. On the other hand, such "special editions" would be so rare as to practically never be preserved.
  3. Volume 1 of the 1922 Loeb Classical Library Lyra Graeca: Being the Remains of All the Greek Lyric Poets From Eumelus to Timotheus Excepting Pindar, edited and translated by J.M. Edmonds.
  4. This material and the following meter descriptions are primarily from the "Appendix on Meters" in The Poetic Dialect of Sappho and Alcaeus by Angus M. Bowie, Arno Press, New York, 1981.
  5. See Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry, by Denys Page, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1955.
  6. I understand that this may be obvious, but as a general rule classicists seem disinclined to say so, perhaps because they are worried students may not appreciate the need for it later otherwise.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Thursday, February 18, 2016 21:24:17