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Rethinking Dactylo-Epitrite in Euripides' Medea

Doug Fraleigh

The first four stasima of Euripides' Medea begin with dactylo-epitrite stanzas. Recent commentaries emphasize the dactylic portions of these and note their epic associations, positing “a slow and dignified movement” in contrast to the Aeolic stanzas that follow (Mastronarde 2002: 240; similarly Mossman 2011: 257). While the dactylic sections do recall epic, they are not the entire meter, and this paper studies the alternation of rhythms in these odes. By divorcing the rhythm of these stanzas from linguistic “frames” (cf. Lidov 2010), I argue that these passages are metrically simpler than previous analyses suggest, and are understandable in terms of a metrical theme that alternates one hemiepes with one iambic metron. This theme can then be extended through the addition of hemiepeis to the beginning, or of iambo-trochaic metra to the end, so that some stanzas are highly stately and dactylic while others introduce dissonance by breaking up or delaying dactylic sections with iambs, thus allowing the meter of different stanzas to complement their differing content.

According to extant analyses, these stanzas' periods rarely repeat. Mastronarde, for example, divides the beginning of the first stasimon into six periods, none of which are identical. I argue that this diversity is an artifact of colometric divisions similar to those urged by West, who defines the period as a unit whose boundaries do not divide words and often occur at syntactic breaks (1982: 4). The analyses of Medea given by Page, Dale, and Mastronarde, then, start from breaks in the language, and then divide the units thus created into familiar cola.

Lidov 2010 gives an alternative method, distinguishing “rhythm” – any pattern that makes the perception of continuity and repetition possible – from “frame,” which refers to the units established by word divisions and syntactic breaks. A frame can be rhythmic, but there can also be rhythmic patterns that do not align with frame boundaries. On this model, a metrical analysis should start from repetitive sequences of heavy and light syllables rather than from breaks in language. These two approaches can, of course, complement each other.

When we analyze the dactylo-epitrites in Medea with Lidov's methodology, a rhythmic simplicity appears. There are many repetitions throughout these stanzas, with over sixty percent of their syllables falling into a metrical theme of the shape – u u – u u – x – u – (hemiepes + ia), a sequence which recurs 34 times. All variation then comes from three simple extensions: (1) the addition of hemiepeis to the beginning of the theme, (2) the addition of iambo-trochaic metra to the end, and (3) the addition of an anceps before a hemiepes. This simplicity is obscured by other analyses, which often split the theme or extensions into different periods, producing the diversity of patterns mentioned above.

These stanzas are, then, characterized by an alternation between dactylic and iambo-trochaic rhythms, with extensions that can prolong the duration of either element. The four stanzas differ in their treatment of these alternations. In the second half of this paper I give an analysis of this process, including a discussion of the interplay between content and meter. The third stasimon, for example, praises Athens in predominantly dactylic rhythm, and is full of extending hemiepeis which, when combined with a long anceps, can even yield a dactylic hexameter: κλεινοτά|ταν σοφί|αν, αἰ|εὶ διὰ | λαμπροτά|του βαίν- (828-30). In other stasima, iambic extensions predominate and produce a tumultuous effect that marks a clear break from the even rhythm of the dactyls. In the first stasimon, for example, after the chorus faults the epic tradition for slighting women, a triple iambic extension is used to claim that women will have their day: φᾶ|μαι· ἔρχεται | τιμὰ γυναι|κείῳ γένει (416-8). These alternations and extensions give the poet a way to produce multiple effects from similar metrical material, and study of this process suggests a path for further research on tragic polymetry.

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Language and Meter

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