Golden Line - Use By Classical Poets

Use By Classical Poets

Do classical poets use the golden line? And if so, how? Statistics cannot really answer this question, but they do illuminate some long-term trends in the use of the golden line. The following statistical tables are offered with the warning that they are based upon one scholar's definitions of golden and "silver" lines (the tables are from Mayer in the bibliography below). There is no consensus on their definition. Table 1 gives the totals for the gold and silver lines in classical poetry, listed in approximate chronological order from Catullus to Statius. Table 2 gives similar figures for a few poets in late antiquity, while Table 3 gives figures for a selection of early medieval poems from the fifth to tenth centuries of this era.

In all three tables, the first column is the total number of verses in the work in question, followed by the number of “golden lines” and “silver lines” in the work. More important for the purposes of comparison are the last three columns, which give the percentage of golden and silver lines in respect to the total number of verses. Aside from a few exceptions, only poems with more than 200 lines are included, since in shorter poems the percentage figures are arbitrary and can be quite high. See, for example, the combined percentage of 14.29 in the Apocolocyntosis. Similarly, other short poems that are not included on the tables, such as the Copa, Moretum, Lydia, and Einsiedeln Eclogues, have rather high combined percentages between 3.45 and 5.26.

Table 1 Golden and Silver Lines in Classical Poetry

Poem Total Verses Golden Silver % Golden % Silver % Gold & Silver
Catullus 64 408 18 10 4.41 2.45 6.86
Horace, Satires & Epistles 3981 14 4 0.35 0.10 0.45
Virgil, Eclogues 829 15 7 1.81 0.84 2.65
Virgil Georgic 2 542 11 5 2.03 0.92 2.95
Virgil Georgic 4 566 5 2 0.88 0.35 1.24
Virgil Aeneid 9896 34 26 0.34 0.26 0.61
Culex 414 18 5 4.35 1.21 5.56
Ciris 541 27 12 4.99 2.22 7.21
Ovid, Metamorphoses 11989 126 28 1.05 0.23 1.28
Lucan 8060 118 51 1.46 0.63 2.10
Laus Pisonis 261 16 4 6.13 1.53 7.66
Persius 650 6 6 0.92 0.92 1.85
Ilias Latina 1070 20 8 1.87 .75 2.62
Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudi 49 6 1 12.24 2.04 14.29
Statius, Thebais 1 720 5 3 .69 .42 1.11
Statius, Thebais 2 743 8 4 1.08 .54 1.62
Statius, Thebais 3 721 2 1 .28 .14 .42

From Table 1 we see that golden and silver lines occur in varying frequencies throughout the classical period, even within the corpus of a single author. There are no Latin golden or silver lines before Catullus, who uses them in poem 64 to an extent almost unparalleled in classical literature. Lucretius has a few examples of the form. Horace has about 1 in every 300 lines, as does Virgil’s Aeneid. Virgil’s earlier works have a much higher percentage. Ovid and Lucan use the golden line about once in every 100 lines. The high percentage of golden lines found in the Laus Pisonis and other works of the Neronian period has led some scholars to claim that the form is a mark of Neronian aesthetics. While several scholars have claimed that the golden line is mainly and artfully used to close periods and descriptions, the poems do not seem to bear this out.

Unfortunately, no amount of statistics can prove that the golden line was a recognized form of classical poetics.

Table 2: Golden lines in selected late antique poetry

Poem Total Verses Golden Silver % Golden % Silver % Gold & Silver
Prudentius, Apotheosis 1084 8 5 0.74 0.46 1.20
Prudentius, Hamartigenia 966 11 3 1.14 0.31 1.45
Prudentius, Psychomachia 915 12 4 1.31 0.44 1.75
Aegritudo Perdicae 290 3 0 1.03 0.00 1.03
Dracontius, De laudibus Dei 1 754 6 2 .80 .27 1.06
Claudian, Panegyricus 1 279 10 3 3.58 1.08 4.66
Claudian In Eutropium 1 513 5 8 0.97 1.56 2.53
Claudian On Honorius’s Third Consulship 211 9 3 4.27 1.42 5.69
Claudian On Honorius’s Fourth Consulship 656 10 5 1.52 0.76 2.29
Ausonius, Mosella 483 18 4 3.73 0.83 4.55

As Table 2 shows, in late antiquity the use of golden lines remains within the general range found in classical times. Of particular interest is their use by Claudian. On the average the golden line crops up in every 50 lines of Claudian, but there are considerable differences between works. Table 2 gives his poem with the lowest percentage (On Honorius’s Fourth Consulship) and that with the highest (On Honorius’s Third Consulship). Figurative poetry, such as that of Publilius Optatianus Porfirius and, in Carolingian times, that of Hrabanus Maurus, rarely uses the golden line. These poets use a variety of hexameters praised by Diomedes—rhopalic verses, echo verses, and reciprocal verses. They use the golden line once or twice. The form is rather elementary compared to their usual pyrotechnic displays.

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