6 Nov 2008

Musical Arrangement of Words in Longinus' Sublime

by Corry Shores
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Harmonious arrangement of words is a “natural source of persuasion and pleasure,” as well, a “wonderful instrument of lofty utterance and of passion.” Tones and rhythms cast spells on our ears. Likewise in speech do we use such music: “the building of phrase upon phrase raises a sublime and harmonious structure.” By mastering our minds, it elevates our noblest emotions.

Longfellow’s “Evangeline” uses the most sublime of meter, the dactylic:
This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman?

If we use a different rhythm, we loose the effect:
This is the primeval forest. But where are the hearts that leaped beneath it just like a row does, when he hears the huntsman’s voice in the woodland?

A translation of Longinus' Demosthenes example reads:
This decree caused the danger which then beset the city to pass by just-as a cloud.

But if we cut off a syllable from the end: “caused to pass by as a cloud,” we lose the sublime rhythm. “The abrupt grandeur of the passage loses its energy and tension.”

Longinus On the Sublime, section 39. W. Rhys Roberts translation.

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