Versification: an interdisciplinary journal of literary prosody
Filename: Parker_Aristophanes_MahoneRev.html
9 December 1997, Vol. 1, No. 1
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A Review of The Songs of Aristophanes by L. P. E. Parker

Anne Mahoney
Boston University

Copyright © Anne Mahoney 1997
Received: 3 November 1997; Published: 9 December 1997

KEYWORDS: Aristophanes, scansion of dramatic lyrics, poetic meter, drama, comedy.

REVIEW OF: The Songs of Aristophanes by L. P. E. Parker. 1997.
Clarendon Press, Oxford. pp. 584.
ISBN: 19-814944-1.


Wilamowitz once wrote that to learn Greek meter one should begin not with, say, Pindar, but with Aristophanes (1) . With The Songs of Aristophanes, L. P. E. Parker has provided the means to do just that. The main body of the book consists of scansions of all the lyrics in the 11 surviving plays of Aristophanes and analyses of how the lyrics work within the dramatic context. The introduction goes beyond and behind these scansions, giving an overview of Greek meter generally and Aristophanes’ practice in particular. A bibliography and an index locorum round out the work.

In her preface, Parker expresses the hope that "younger students of Greek poetry" as well as specialists will find the book useful (p. vii). There is much here that will be useful to a student comfortable enough in Greek to be reading Aristophanes; in particular, the advice on practical scansion and colometry is concrete and sensible. Since basic terms are defined sketchily or not at all, Parker’s hypothetical student would probably need a handbook or at least a glossary. Once the rudiments are under control, however, the detailed analyses of complete choruses give a much better introduction to how meter works in practice than the short examples that handbooks must settle for. Consider, for example, the straightforward parabasis song of Knights, ll. 551-564 ~ 581-594. The first paragraph of Parker’s analysis (p. 168) is a clear, concise exposition of all the main points of this song, worth quoting in full as an example of her technique:

The parabasis-song of the Knights, the representatives of true patriotism and civic decency, is a hymn to Poseidon (in the strophe) and Athene (in the antistrophe). The stanza falls into four sections, of which the first two are constructed metrically in the same way: a sequence of choriambo-iambic dimeters, with their own catalectic form, the aristophanean, as clausula. The third section stands out rhythmically, forming a climax: in the strophe there is the invocation, in the antistrophe the reference to victory. Throughout the song the chorus maintain a delicate ambiguity of identification between their dramatic role as knights and their real-life character as chorus-men. It is in the third section, in both strophe and antistrophe, that they clearly step outside their dramatic role ( 559 [into the chorus], 589 [choral]). The antistrophe brings together city, chorus, and poet. The stanza ends with the same simple structure of repeated acatalectic colon with its own catalectic form as clausula (Introduction, pp. 22-5), but this time the colon is glyconic.

This song is simple enough that the student will be able to scan it easily. Parker’s comments show the next steps beyond mere identification of cola, and carefully tie the meter to the meaning.

This is not, however, a beginner’s book. Further discussion of the Knights’ parabasis-song, one of the simplest in Aristophanes, covers two full pages. After the succinct description just quoted, Parker continues with a deeper analysis, comparing this song not only to the parabasis-song of Clouds but also to the Dionysian paean by Philodamus of Scarphaea, which uses similar cola and might be drawing on similar traditional forms. She also compares the hymn to Colonus, Sophocles OC 668-719, whose meters and structure are similar to the Knights’ song, if more complicated. Finally, she notes that there are no textual problems in this chorus, and mentions the papyri that preserve parts of it. Even discussing such a straightforward lyric as this one, Parker probes beyond the easy analysis and the obvious comparisons.

Any discussion of lyric in Aristophanes will give considerable space to Birds. Although this play does not have the highest proportion of lyric (Frogs has more), it has the most prominent and the most complex lyrics, and is "a play much admired for its lyrical qualities" (p. 13). Parker begins her analysis as follows:

In Birds Aristophanes seems to have set out to dazzle his audience with a display of metrical and musical virtuosity. Here, in consequence, we face most painfully our inability to appreciate what he was doing, except theoretically and intellectually. The repeated use of certain rhythms with structural and thematic functions, which is so common a feature of Aristophanes’ plays, is absent here. On the contrary, the chief metrical characteristic of the play is diversity: every major type of metre found in Attic drama is represented, with, in addition, some rarities. (p. 297)

As she has said in the introduction (p. 4), modern readers will invariably miss the musical allusions that ancient hearers recognized. Even when there is a verbal allusion, as for example to Alcman PMG 26.3 at line 251, we may miss part of the point because we do not have the entire context of the Alcman fragment (cf. p. 303). Birds, then, is difficult to analyze not only because of its intrinsic complexity but because it pushes the limits of a genre we can only know imperfectly. Parker’s analysis emphasizes the metrical diversity of the play and places it in the context of Greek lyric generally.

Two striking features of Birds are the bird song and the extensive use of dochmiacs. Parker notes the bird-calls in the Hoopoe’s song, especially the beginning as turns into [come!] (l. 228), and throughout the play. More interesting is her observation that "twittering, especially at moments of emotion, is mimicked by resolution" (p. 297), a point not explicitly made by Nan Dunbar in her magnificent commentary (Oxford: 1995). There are many runs of short syllables in the choruses, not just in bird-call lines like their entrance line (l. 310) [wh-wh-wh-where’s the fellow calling me?] but in the words of the subsequent chorus, beginning

[we have been betrayed and evilly led astray]

The bird-chorus sounds like a flock of birds even when it is singing plain Greek.

The strophe of this chorus ends in dochmiacs (l. 333-334) and the antistrophe in cretics (l. 349-350). While it is not impossible for dochmiacs and cretics to correspond (Parker cites Wasps 339 ~ 370), it is not frequent and "the problem remains of why, if such a convenient device was open to Aristophanes, he did not use it more often." (p. 307) Parker suggests that the dochmiacs may represent the birds’ "distress and sense of betrayal" and the cretics their "aggressive firmness and resolution," both appropriate given how these meters are used elsewhere. Her consistent attempt to relate the meters to the content of the lyrics is one of the most important features of the book; metrical analysis is not pure abstraction but a tool for reading poetry.

Parker analyzes the difficult passage with the Pindaric poet (Birds 904-952) as aeolo-choriambic and "eccentric" dactylo-epitrite. She finds parallels for many of the rhythmic phrases in Pindar’s surviving works, even though the passage as a whole is metrically rather incoherent and may not sound anything like any of Pindar’s own meters. Her colometry differs from Dunbar’s in several places, though they agree almost totally on the words of the text (Parker prints, but obelizes, at l. 930; Dunbar omits). In ll. 909-910 and 913-914,

(913-914),

[zealous servants of the Muses, as Homer has it]

Parker divides between lines, to give glyc E – the first time and – – D E – the second. (Note that E in both Parker’s and Dunbar’s scansions is , not ). Dunbar keeps the word together and analyzes as and , noting that might be a "freak hipponactean" (Dunbar p. 523). Parker notes this scansion as a possible alternative. Her own version makes the first use of the phrase aeolic, consonant with the Pindaric poet’s first few lines, and the second tidily dactylo-epitrite.

At ll. 928-9,

[give me whatever you wish in your thoughtful heart to give Æto me for yourselfÆ]

Dunbar divides , giving , while Parker puts colon-end at word end, one syllable later, and has in 928, with 929 starting , taking the first syllable of as heavy because it always is in Pindar, and obelizing the last two words. Both editors scan the first as short, long. Pindar only has this form once, at Paean 10.19, followed by a consonant. Scanning as two shorts would produce five short syllables in a row, a fully-resolved cretic, which Pindar uses on occasion but not in dactylo-epitrite. Parker notes that Nemean 7, strophe l. 6, is a telesillean followed by a fully-resolved cretic, though as that is not a dactylo-epitrite context the parallel is not exact. Taking the second word of the line as short followed by long gives a headless D, a fairly common phrase in Pindar. Parker is correct to note that Pindar never follows it with the telesillean we see here, however. I am inclined to agree with Dunbar’s analysis here.

Lyrics from Birds, particularly the Hoopoe’s song and the parabasis-song, are often taken as examples of Aristophanes’ serious poetry. An important article by Michael Silk (2) argues that in fact Aristophanes is not much of a lyric poet at all. Parker discusses Silk’s article in the first part of her introduction, "The Art of Aristophanes’ Lyric" (p. 3-17). Silk’s intention was to correct the excessive tributes to Aristophanes’ poetry, and he goes rather to the opposite extreme. Parker sensibly points out that "Aristophanes was not a lyric poet." (p. 10, her italics) His lyrics belong to musical theatre, and that genre in his day as in ours can accommodate songs "of virtually no poetic significance" (p. 10) as well as comic songs and parodies. There is also a class of song which Parker would call "light verse" (p. 15), including for example Clouds 275-313, the entrance-song of the cloud chorus, "to be appreciated as well-turned verse, designed to join with spectacle and music to produce a complete theatrical experience, not to be subjected to close analysis as lyric poetry." (p. 15) We must take Aristophanic lyrics on their own terms, if we can determine what those terms are, rather than regretting that they are not like Pindar’s lyrics. Some of them may seem flat or forgettable when read outside the theatre, but others are not. Parker closes this part of the introduction with an example of a "good" poem, "verse that is good independently of being witty or humorous" (p. 15), Acharnians 971-999. In particular, this chorus sounds conversational and natural. There are sexual metaphors, but whereas Dover and Henderson read them as violent, Parker points out that they are peaceful, concerned with fertility and love of the land. Although much of the book is concerned with the technical details of meter, Parker’s affection for the plays comes through clearly, and her readings are often, as here, quite perceptive.

The central and largest section of the introduction, "The Metres of Aristophanes" (p. 18-93), discusses the meters that Aristophanes uses and how his metrical procedures differ from those of other poets. Parker describes the types of meter – iambic, trochaic, cretic, and so on – with their histories, uses in other poets, and specifically comic features. She mentions the dialogue meters as well as the lyric ones where appropriate, but not in any great detail. For each type of meter, she contrasts its use in tragedy with its use by Aristophanes, and there is much of value here for the student of tragic meter. She has also a fair amount to say about Pindar’s practice in aeolic and dactlyo-epitrite. Perhaps the most valuable feature of this section is her inclusion of the other comic poets, including Eupolis, Cratinus, Hermippus, and Pherecrates, whose work survives only in fragments. Dramatic fragments are often neglected in favor of work on the complete surviving plays, but in the case of Old Comedy, where only one playwright’s works survive, we need the fragments to get a complete picture of the genre. Parker’s discussion of the other poets’ practice is a start towards recognizing what is unique about Aristophanes.

One of Parker’s main theses is that meter and textual criticism support each other. The last section of her introduction is called "Metre and the Transmission of the Text" (p. 94-119), and it is a history of the text of the plays from a metrical point of view. Parker has established her own text for all the lyrics, and has studied not only the words but also the colometry of the manuscripts and papyri. Whereas the metrical scholia on Pindar are mere descriptions or scansions, those on Aristophanes preserve the work of some competent metrists, including Heliodorus. Parker describes controversies visible in the scholia, places where the scholiast disagrees with the given colometry and mentions a better one, or where the scholiast proposes emendations to restore responsion. The medieval manuscripts also show different colometries, though because of wrongly run-on lines and mistakes in word-division it is unlikely that these differences could be used to help establish relationships between manuscripts. In general the colometry of the lyric passages preserved on papyri matches that of the oldest manuscript R (Ravenna 429, mid-10th century) and that of the scholia. Occasionally V (Venice 474, 11-12th century) is different from R, and their differing colometries may both be ancient.

More recent metrical and textual scholarship begins with Demetrius Triclinius in the 14th century, and a sub-theme of the book is that his metrical acuity is sometimes overrated. He seems to have relied heavily on the colometry existing in his copies and on the ancient scholia. Although some of his restorations are certainly correct, other emendations are not; Parker even once describes his work as "mutilation" (p. 489, on Frogs 875-884). Triclinius’ work is indirectly the basis of the first printed edition of Aristophanes, which gave the standard colometry until the very end of the 18th century. Parker then summarizes some of the work of the last 200 years, notably the efforts in the early 19th century to fit Greek meter into musical "bars" like those of 18th- or 19th-century European music. This theory was used by J. W. White to justify various failures of correspondence. A syncopated iambic metron, for example, could respond with a full iambus because they would both be sung in six counts. As Parker points out, there is enough flexibility in this theory to solve almost any metrical problem, though to his credit White seems to have been fairly conservative in what he accepted (3) . Another flexible theory, adopted by A. M. Dale among others, is the idea that occasionally Aristophanes may have simply counted syllables: any four syllables might be allowed to match any four others. Parker considers this "a drastic and dangerous solution" (p. 117) and rejects it, despite her obvious respect for Dale’s work (4) .

Finally, Parker discusses the difference between stating that a passage does not need to be emended and deciding that it is sound enough to be used as evidence. "Corrupters of verse texts do not necessarily make nonsense; sometimes they just make prose." (p. 118) A passage can make linguistic and literary sense, so that there is no obvious need for emendation, and make no sense metrically, possibly because words have been re-arranged or glosses have displaced the original words. In such a case, even if we suspect that something is wrong, we should leave the text as it stands; Parker points out that we know much more about what is grammatically or lexically acceptable than about what is metrically acceptable. The concept of preferring the lectio difficilior does not apply to meter: copyists may substitute easier words, consciously or accidentally, but are unlikely to have been metrically sophisticated enough to substitute simpler cola. The real problem comes when an editor thinks first "this is metrically strange but I see no other reason to emend so I’d better leave it alone" and then "this text is unemended so it must be right" and then "this passage is an example of an unusual metrical feature." Emending everything to regularize the meter was Triclinius’s fault; here Parker cautions against the opposite fault, of assuming that every metrical anomaly is really correct.

It remains to say a few words about the layout of the book. In the discussions of the separate plays, each lyric is presented on facing pages, strophes on the left and antistrophes on the right. Long and short marks accompany the text on the left-hand pages, while cola are identified on the right. It looks like this:

(Acharnians ll. 209-211 ~ 224-226, p.124-5)

[He’s escaped, he’s gone, he’s left. Damn, I’m too old for this.]

[Oh father Zeus and gods, whoever has made peace with the enemies ...]

The analysis follows on the same pages. This layout is at first confusing because material that belongs together will be separated by the page-gutter. Consider this example from a couple of pages further on (p. 128-129, still in Acharnians):

analysis of ll. 263-297, continued (a)

analysis of 263-297 (b)

text and scansion of 280-283

cola of 280-283

analysis of 280-283 (a)

analysis of 280-283 (b)

text and scansion of 284-301, strophe

text and cola of 335-346, antistrophe

It is necessary to read each of these four sections across the two-page spread, rather than reading down the left page and then down the right page. This could have been made clearer by putting visible separators between the commentary on one lyric and the text of the next. It might also have been appropriate to start each section on a new page, but this would have made an already hefty book rather larger. The convenience of being able to compare strophe and antistrophe outweighs the difficulty of getting used to the format, however. The metrical symbols in the scansions on the left-hand pages include indications of hiatus justifying verse-end, and it is clear at sight whether this occurs in strophe, antistrophe, or both. Parker is also careful of spacing in scansions, putting space between repeating metra where appropriate to show structure. For example, may be interpreted in several different ways. In an iambic context, she prints , and among trochees .

The book closes with a bibliography, divided into "general," "works on language," "collections of fragments," and "editions" of the plays. There is an "index of poets and passages cited," including every poet cited except Aristophanes himself, for whom only references to fragments are listed. That is, references to one play in the commentary on another are not indexed. There is no general index; if you wanted to look up, say, discussions of cretic meter, you would have to find the cretic passages in the various plays, and look there.

The Songs of Aristophanes should prove useful both to Aristophanes scholars and to metrists. I hope it will also serve the next generations of metrists as a model and a standard to aim for. Parker’s broad knowledge of Greek literature and of Greek meter, and her care as an editor, are wonderful, but even more important is her constant emphasis on the lyric in the context of the drama.


1. "Wer Metrik lernen will, soll mit Aristophanes anfangen." Pindaros, p. 95.

2. "Aristophanes as a Lyric Poet," Yale Class. St. 26 (1980), 99-151.

3. This form of metrical analysis is best known to English-speaking classicists nowadays from Sir Richard C. Jebb's commentaries, some of which are in print in student editions. It involves prolonging some syllables, seemingly arbitrarily, to fit everything into tidy 3/4 or 4/4 measures. While there is some evidence, from ancient musical notation, that some long syllables were longer than others, there is no reason to assume that Greek music had to have uniform measures. Fortunately this style of analysis has fallen out of favor.

4. Parker acknowledges Dale, in her preface, as one of her own earliest metrical teachers, and the present volume is modeled after Dale's scansions of the lyrics of tragedy. (p. viii-ix)