An Ancient Poetic Device Called — ?


Dido & Aeneas, in the cave.

As my final Stateside treat before leaving for Corsica this weekend, I’ve just finished my friend Ann Patty’s book Living With a Dead Language: My Romance With Latin. Ann will be subbing for me next week, so I want to introduce you to her — though probably the best introduction would be to read the book, which is just out in bookstores.

My affectionate response to Living With a Dead Language has to do with more than friendship, though. I’m in my third year of trying fitfully to learn Italian, the most direct descendant of Latin, and on this trip I’ll be learning a cappella Corsican music, most of it in an old Italian dialect that crisscrosses Latin at various points. You get lyrics like:

Si Diu hè d’accunsentu Ch’ellu mandi à Gabriellu
Messageru Alluminatu Per à luce di u vasngelu
Vogliu sente u so discorsu Cù lu spiritu di u zitellu

You can suss it out, sort of, with both Italian and Latin, bearing in mind meanwhile that Corsica itself has been part of France for a long while, so French is its official language. One of the things I most look forward to about this trip is the stew of words I’ll find myself in.

Ann’s book focuses on the main ingredient of that stew, the Latin of Horace and Catullus, Cicero and Ovid. Like me with Italian, she’s picking up this new language in the latter part of her life, wrestling with memorization but also bringing a broader set of skills than she might have possessed studying Latin in college. One of those is a sense of syntax. And here’s where I want us to help her out with a rhetorical phenomenon she describes beautifully but for which she cannot find an adequate name. She calls it a word picture, but confesses that the term — defined generally as “a graphic or vivid description in words” — is inadequate to the poetic device. Here’s her first example, from Ovid’s Amores:

Cingere litorea flaventia tempora myrto

Her translation, “Encircle your golden temples with myrtle,” cannot convey what the Latin achieves, which is literally “Encircle shoreline golden temples with myrtle.” Shoreline modifies myrtle, so the encircling is actually happening in the syntax, or as Ann puts it, “The chiasmic placement of the words enacts their meaning.”

This is not the same as concrete poetry, like George Herbert’s famous “Easter Wings,” where the poem is shaped visually into wings; nor is it the word painting that we hear in musical pieces designed to reach high notes when places are exalted and dive into low registers for valleys. It’s a device that relies entirely on syntax. Virgil apparently used this strategy often, as in the Aeneid 4:24, where

speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem

puts Dido and Aeneas together enclosed in a cave by having the cave (spelucam) and the reference to their being together (eandem) enclose them in the phrase itself.

and in English, we have e.e. cummings,

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though I have closed myself as fingers
you open always petal by petal myself . . .

where the successive petals unfold to reveal myself.

Ann suggests verba acta (words enacted), verba imaginata (words in image), or imago in verbis (image in words) as possible names for this syntactic flourish. And certainly with so many of our prosodic and figurative terms (caesura, iambic, anaphora, simile, etc.) coming from Greek or Latin, a Latin term would suit. But does such a term exist already, or would anyone else like to invent one? Put your candidates, and your examples, forward. And welcome to Ann.

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