Poetic Rhythm as an Expressive Device in Martial I.96

Wakefield Foster
University of Missouri, Columbia

I suggest that the rhythmic texture of non-isochronous lyric meters (those which permit exchange of a long syllable for a single short) provides a built-in mechanism to influence and direct delivery rate during oral performance so that tempo fluctuations may accompany corresponding changes in the text.  The choliamb (<± <  ± < <± <  ± <  ± < < <) allows two substitutions of a long syllable for a single short, thus providing four durationally graduated permutations with which to manipulate delivery rate for expressive advantage.  I analyze the metrical structure of a choliambic epigram by Martial (I.96) and compare the rational organization of choliambic permutations to the unfolding structure of his text in an effort to understand more clearly the underpinning of textual meaning and aesthetic enhancement that result from the durational flexibility of choliambic (lyric) meter.

An essential expressive quality of quantitative poetry is the aural character that it presents.   I demonstrate how non-isochronous choliambic meter allows the poet to imitate the ebb and flow of natural speech.  In the Poetics, Aristotle writes that iambic is the most  conversational meter since speakers most often use iambic rather than hexameter rhythms in daily speech.  The crucial distinction for Aristotle between iambic and hexameter meter is that the former is non-isochronous and admits substitutions of unequal duration, whereas hexameter does not.  Although Vergil constructs hexameter passages with simulated acceleration or deceleration by increasing or decreasing syllabic density, the tempo or pace of delivery is unchanged since isochronicity requires substitutions of equal duration.  After commenting on metrical manipulation in Martial I.96, I will read the poem aloud to demonstrate my claims.

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