The Importance of Meter in Poetry

Gerardus Vossius, On the Nature and Constitution of the Poetic Art, Cap. II:

Whether the name of poet is given for making verses or for contriving stories.

“The latter opinion pleased Aristotle and even Plato. Words in metrical form were not sufficient to get someone called a poet; rather, the diction had to be worked up and bound by meter, and animated by the poetic spirit. Yet although meter was not sufficient to make something a poem, yet that is always required. The opposite opinion is attrbuted to Aristotle both by others and by Robortellus. How greatly the most learned men seem to disagree with him about what Aristotle understood by plain words or epic poetry and the speeches of Socrates. Assent has been granted to them who understand plain words to mean prose; epic to mean imitation wrought either in prose or in song; the speeches of Socrates to mean the dialogues of Plato. Those who claim that the mimes of Sophron were written in prose have been deceived by a corrupt passage in the Suda. The true sense of song (carminis) can be recognized by that alone, that the name of poets comes more from the meter than from the contrivance of fiction. It would be right to call the history of Herodotus poetry if it were worked out in verse, and Homer’s Iliad prose if it were written without meter.”

Utrum poetis a faciendis versibus, an a fingendis fabulis, nomen impositum sit. Posteriorem sententiam placuisse Aristoteli, atque etiam Platoni. Λόγον ἔμμετρον non sufficere, ut quis poeta dicatur: sed exigi praeterea dictionem metro ligatam, et spiritu poetico animatam. Utcumque vero non sufficiat metrum, ut quid poema dicatur, semper tamen id requiri. Contrariam sententiam tribui Aristoteli, cum ab aliis, tum Robortello. Quantopere de eo dissentiant homines doctissimi, quid Aristoteles intellexerit per ψιλοὺς λόγους , per ἐποποΐαν , et per Socratis sermones. Iis assensum, qui per ψιλοὺς λόγους intelligunt sermonem pedestrem; per ἐποποΐαν , imitationem seu prosa, seu carmine, institutam; per Socratis sermones, Platonis dialogos. corrupto Suidae loco deceptos, qui Sophronis mimos prosa fuisse scriptos contendunt. Carminis ἔτυμον , ac vel eo solo cognosci, poetis potius a metro esse nomen, quam a fictione. Quo nomine vocare oporteat Herodoti historiam, si in carmen redigatur; vel Homeri Iliada, si eadem prosa conscribatur.


One thought on “The Importance of Meter in Poetry

  1. The entire Latin paragraph is a list of the topics Vossius will cover in chapter 2, hence the indirect discourse (after an implied “he says” or “he writes”). It’s not exactly a connected text, but more like a series of bullet points. The final two sentences run like this:

    “- The etymology of carmen; and how even by that [etymology] alone one may recognize that poets take their name from meter rather than from composing fiction.
    – By what name we ought to call Herodotus’ history, if it were cast in verse, or Homer’s Iliad, if the same were written in prose.”

    Vossius’ answer to the last question, by the way, is that a prose Homer could no longer be called poetry, but a verse Herodotus would be poetry and history at once.

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