Rhythm as Dramatic Device in Catullus 8

Wakefield Foster

University of Missouri, Columbia

I suggest that Catullus (carmen 8) exploits the rhythmic possibilities of choliambic meter so that his words in performance speak with the urgency or hesitation implicit in the text.  Non-isochronous lyric meters (those which permit exchange of a long syllable for a single short) provide 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 rhythmically graduated permutations with which to manipulate delivery rate for expressive advantage.  Catullus' choliambic poem 8 occupies a prominent position in the introductory sequence (cc. 1-11) as one of three poems composed in meters other than the phalaecean and is metrically unique among the eight choliambic poems of the Polymetra (cc. 1-60) as the only one entirely free of enjambment.  I analyze the metrical structure and compare the rational organization of choliambic permutations to the unfolding structure of Catullus' text in an effort to understand more clearly the underpinning of textual meaning and aesthetic enhancement that result from the choliamb's structural and durational flexibility.

The essential live-performance quality of quantitative poetry is the aural character that it expresses.  I demonstrate how choliambic meter allows the poet to imitate the ebb and flow of natural speech and suggest that Catullus' innovation, imitated later by Martial, is reminiscent of Plautus' use of rhythm for dramatic effect.  Aristotle (Poetics) writes that iambic/trochaic meters are the most conversational since speakers most often use iambics/trochaics 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.  After commenting on metrical manipulation in Catullus 8, I will recite the poem aloud to demonstrate my claims.

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