Introducing Homer's Iliad
Introducing Homer's Iliad

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Introducing Homer's Iliad

3.1 Meter and word order

The sung nature of oral poetry is particularly apparent from the fact that there is a strong metrical structure, or rhythm, to the poetry in the ancient Greek. Various metrical structures can be seen in more modern poetry; for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets make use of iambic pentameter (five metrical ‘feet’ of two syllables each, one unstressed and one stressed: da-DUM). The poetic genre of the Iliad – heroic epic – has, in the original Greek text, a very strict metrical structure. For each line of verse, in the Greek there are six metrical feet – hence the full name of Homer’s poetry: hexameter – composed of a combination of short and long syllables. You don’t need to recognise the precise structure of the hexameter metrical line, but it is important to know this is the fundamental basis for how the poetry works.

Activity 5

Listen to the first audio, which is a recording of the English translation of the first seven lines of the Iliad. Then listen to the second audio, which is a recording of the first seven lines of the Iliad being recited in ancient Greek, in order to hear the rhythm. Finally, listen to the third audio, which discusses the metrical structure of these lines.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1
Skip transcript: Audio 1 Reading of lines 1–7 of the Iliad in translation

Transcript: Audio 1 Reading of lines 1–7 of the Iliad in translation

Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, Peleus' son,
the accursed anger which brought the Achaeans countless
agonies and hurled many mighty shades of heroes into Hades,
causing them to become the prey of dogs and
all kinds of birds; and the plan of Zeus was fulfilled.
Sing from the time the two men were first divided in strife—
Atreus' son, lord of men, and glorious Achilles.
End transcript: Audio 1 Reading of lines 1–7 of the Iliad in translation
Audio 1 Reading of lines 1–7 of the Iliad in translation
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 2
Audio 2 Lucy Jackson reads lines 1–7 of the Iliad in Greek
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 3
Skip transcript: Audio 3 A discussion of meter in these lines

Transcript: Audio 3 A discussion of meter in these lines

CHRISTINE PLASTOW
Meter can be quite a complicated idea to get your head around, especially if you’re not used to reading a lot of poetry. For English speakers, the most familiar meter is probably iambic pentameter. ‘Pentameter’ refers to the number of metrons, more commonly called feet, which are the individual units of the meter; in this case, there are five feet (as the ‘pent’ part of ‘pentameter’ indicates.) ‘Iambic’ refers to the type of foot – in the case of English, an iamb is constructed of one unstressed and one stressed syllable, ‘da-DUM’ as in ‘above’ or ‘delay’. The meter can be noticed particularly clearly in Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? or My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun. As I recite those lines, you can hopefully hear that every other syllable is stressed, in a pattern of five feet. This stressed and unstressed form of meter is called accentual meter.
Meter in ancient Greek is slightly different, because it uses long and short syllables, rather than stressed and unstressed syllables. So in Greek poetry, an iamb would be one short and one long syllable. This is called quantitative meter. The metrical system of the Iliad, and indeed of all heroic epic poetry, is called dactylic hexameter. You may be able to deduce that the word ‘hexameter’ indicates that there are six feet to a line. ‘Dactylic’ refers to the type of foot, which is constructed of one long and two short syllables, ‘dum-diddle’. The name comes from the Greek word ‘daktylos’, meaning finger, because the finger from the knuckle to the tip is composed of one long and two short bones. Dactylic hexameter is often considered to be the most grandiose and formal type of meter, though its success as a meter for epic is because of the way it seems to drive the narrative along and create a flowing style.
In dactylic hexameter, the first five feet are usually dactyls, while the sixth foot has only two syllables, often one long and one short, called a trochee, or two long, called a spondee. Classical dactylic hexameter is quite a flexible meter, though, and any of the first four dactyls can be freely replaced with a spondee. The fifth dactyl can occasionally be replaced with a spondee, though in Homer, the fifth foot remains a dactyl 95% of the time.
In Homeric poetry, word breaks often occur in the middle of feet. So the first two words of the Iliad, menin aeide, take up one and a half feet. If I recite the first line of the Iliad slowly, hopefully you can hear the distinction between the feet: ME nin a / EI de the / A PE / LE i a / DEO akh i / LE OS. You might have been able to hear that there was a change in the middle of the line. The third foot has been replaced with a spondee. So in the first line of the Iliad, we have two dactyls: Menin aeide the-. One spondee: -A pe-. Two more dactyls: -leia deo akhi-. And a final spondee: -leos. If you go back and listen to the Greek recording again now, you may be able to begin to hear the meter in the opening of the Iliad.
End transcript: Audio 3 A discussion of meter in these lines
Audio 3 A discussion of meter in these lines
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

As you heard, the metrical structure of the Iliad is particularly strict. You might expect that this would affect how creative the poet could be in his choice of words and phrases. Although the meter did in some ways constrain the poetry, in fact the poet was able to use the form to great effect by exploiting the flexibility of Greek word order.

Activity 6

Now return to those first seven lines, but this time you’re going to look at the order of the words in Greek, and how they’ve been translated into English. You are not expected to be able to read the Greek here (though if you’ve studied ancient Greek before, you may be able to recognise some words); a literal translation to illustrate the original word order is provided. For each line, you are given the Greek text, then the transliteration (the Greek text rendered in English letters), then the literal word order in English and finally the good English translation. Take a few minutes to study each line and see how the English translation relates to the original Greek word order. Then look more closely at the Greek word order, and see if you can spot any interesting effects.

Line 1

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

menin aeide thea Peleiadeo Achileos

anger sing goddess son-of-Peleus Achilles

Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, Peleus' son,

 

Line 2

οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,

oulomenen, he myri’ Achaiois alge’ etheke,

accursed, that countless to-the-Achaeans agonies brought

the accursed anger which brought the Achaeans countless

 

Line 3

πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν

pollas d’ iphthimous psychas Aidi proiapsen

many and mighty shades into-Hades hurled

agonies and hurled many mighty shades of heroes into Hades,

 

Line 4

ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν

heroon, autous de heloria teuche kynessin

of-heroes, them and prey causing-them-to-become of-dogs

causing them to become the prey of dogs and

 

Line 5

οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,

oionoisi te pasi, Dios d’ eteleieto boule,

of-birds and all-kinds, of-Zeus and was-fulfilled plan.

all kinds of birds; and the plan of Zeus was fulfilled.

 

Line 6

ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε

ex hou de ta prota diasteten erisante

from when indeed the first in-strife were-divided

Sing from the time the two men were first divided in strife—

 

Line 7

Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

Atreides te anax andron kai dios Achilleus.

Son-of-Atreus both lord of-men and glorious Achilles.

Atreus' son, lord of men, and glorious Achilles.

Discussion

You might have noticed that the translator tries to keep the same words on the same line in his translation, even though he cannot keep the same word order; it appears that the only major deviation is the word ‘agonies’, which he moves from the second line to the third line. Similarly, he tries not to add in any more extra words than are necessary to make sense of the Greek grammar, with the exception of the repetition of the word ‘sing’ on line 6.

You might have also noted that the first word in Greek is ‘anger’, which as you saw in the Troy Story I animation is the theme of the whole poem – the anger of Achilles. This is an intentional use of the flexibility of ancient Greek word order, to have the effect of highlighting the theme of the poem from the very beginning for the listening audience. It is difficult, however, to translate this into English in a way that maintains this effect, and so many translators choose to start with the imperative ‘sing’, directed towards the Muse.

You might have spotted a similar effect in the Greek on lines two and four, where the first word of each line is part of a phrase that runs over from the previous line: ‘accursed’ on line two, and ‘heroes’ on line four (this poetic technique of running a sentence over two lines to emphasise certain words is called enjambement). Thus, like anger, these words are highlighted and their force emphasised; we learn that Achilles’ anger will be terrible and destructive, and meet for the first time the heroes who will play such major roles in the epic.

However, it’s possible to draw out another interesting point from the introduction of the heroes here. You might have been surprised by the fact that the first thing we hear about the heroes is that their souls are being hurled into Hades. This sombre, reflective tone and focus on death contains no suggestion of a celebration of heroic activity. We can see from the very start, then, that the Iliad is not a poem that glorifies war, or even necessarily the heroic way of life; although the heroes are obviously set apart from ‘normal’ people (both at the time of the poem’s original performance and in the present day) by their strength, courage, and honour, they are still victims of the fighting and subject to their own mortality.

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