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Dionysius of Halicarnassus

On Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite

We owe the survival of Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite to this passage from On Literary Composition by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. W. Rhys Roberts translates Dionysius, A. S. Way translates Sappho's poem.***


The smooth (or florid) mode of composition, which I regarded as second in order, has the following features. It does not intend that each word should be seen on every side, nor that all its parts should stand on broad, firm bases, nor that the time-intervals between them should be long; nor in general is this slow and deliberate movement congenial to it. It demands free movement in its diction; it requires words to come sweeping along one on top of another, each supported by that which follows, like the onflow of a never-resting stream. It tries to combine and interweave its component parts, and thus give, as far as possible, the effect of one continuous utterance. This result is produced by so nicely adjusting the junctures that they admit no appreciable time-interval between the words. From this point of view the style resembles finely woven stuffs, or pictures in which the lights melt insensibly into the shadows. It requires that all its words shall be melodious, smooth, soft as a maiden's face; and it shrinks from harsh, clashing syllables, and carefully avoids everything rash and hazardous.

It requires not only that its words should be properly dove-tailed and fitted together, but also that the clauses should be carefully inwoven with one another and all issue in a period. It limits the length of a clause so that it is neither shorter nor longer than the right mean, and the compass of the period so that a man's full breath will be able to cover it. It could not endure to construct a passage without periods, nor a period without clauses, nor a clause without symmetry. The rhythms it uses are not the longest, but the intermediate, or shorter than these. It requires its periods to march as with steps regulated by line and rule, and to close with a rhythmical fall. Thus, in fitting together its periods and its words respectively, it employs two different methods. The latter it runs together; the former it keeps apart, wishing that they may be seen as it were from every side. As for figures, it is wont to employ not the most time-honoured sort, nor those marked by stateliness, gravity, or mellowness, but rather for the most part those which are dainty and alluring, and contain much that is seductive and fanciful. To speak generally: its attitude is directly opposed to that of the former variety in the principal and most essential points. I need not go over these points again.

Our next step will be to enumerate those who have attained eminence in this style. Well, among epic poets Hesiod, I think, has best developed the type; among lyric poets, Sappho, and, after her, Anacreon and Simonides; of tragedians, Euripides alone; of historians, none exactly, but Ephorus and Theopompus more than most; of orators, Isocrates. I will quote examples of this style also, selecting among poets Sappho, and among orators Isocrates. And I will begin with the lyric poetess:

Rainbow-throned immortal one, Aphrodite,
Child of Zeus, spell-weaver, I bow before thee--
Harrow not my spirit with anguish, mighty
              Queen, I implore thee!

Nay, come hither, even as once thou, bending
Down from far to hearken my cry, didst hear me,
From thy Father's palace of gold descending
              Drewest anear me

Chariot-wafted: far over midnight-sleeping
Earth, thy fair fleet sparrows, through cloudland riven
Wide by multitudinous wings, came sweeping
              Down from thine heaven,

Swiftly came: thou, smiling with those undying
Lips and star-eyes, Blessed One, smiling me-ward,
Said'st, "What ails thee?-- wherefore uprose thy crying
              Calling me thee-ward?

Say for what boon most with a frenzied longing
Yearns thy soul--say whom shall my glamour chaining
Hale thy love's thrall, Sappho--and who is wronging
              Thee with disdaining?

Who avoids thee soon shall be thy pursuer:
Aye, the gift-rejecter the giver shall now be:
Aye, the loveless now shall become the wooer,
              Scornful shalt thou be!

Once again come! Come, and my chains dissever,
Chains of heart-ache! Passionate longings rend me--
Oh fulfil them! Thou in the strife be ever
              Near, to defend me.'

              (Verse translation by A.S. Way)

Here the euphonious effect and the grace of the language arise from the coherence and smoothness of the junctures. The words nestle close to one another and are woven together according to certain affinities and natural attractions of the letters. Almost throughout the entire ode vowels are joined to mutes and semi-vowels, all those in fact which are naturally prefixed or affixed to one another when pronounced together in one syllable. There are very few clashings of semi-vowels with semi-vowels or mutes, and of mutes and vowels with one another, such as cause the sound to oscillate. When I review the entire ode, I find, in all those nouns and verbs and other kinds of words, only five or perhaps six unions of semi-vowels and mutes which do not naturally blend with one another, and even they do not disturb the smoothness of the language to any great extent. As for juxtaposition of vowels, I find that those which occur in the clauses themselves are still fewer, while those which join the clauses to one another are only a little more numerous. As a natural consequence the language has a certain easy flow and softness; the arrangement of the words in no way ruffles the smooth waves of sound.


*** From Dionysius of Halicarnassus On literary composition, being the Greek text of the De compositione verborum, edited with introduction, translation, notes, glossary, and appendices, by W. Rhys Roberts (London, Macmillan, 1910). pp. 237-241.

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