Poetic prose

At the outset of the chapter I gave a broad definition of poetry that (for the purposes of the present inquiry) identified its essence not in the use of metre but in the adoption of high style, 'a style which diverges from the ordinary by using elevated or archaic vocabulary, ornamental epithets, figures of speech, a contrived word order, or other artificial features'. I flagged the possibility that Indo-European practice might have recognized the use of such a style for certain sorts of composition that were not in verse.

Something of the kind is in fact found in several branches of the tradition.95 It appears especially in prayers and religious ritual, where correct and lofty wording was called for. From India Watkins cites the liturgy of the Asvamedha, the great horse sacrifice associated with the installation of a king. Some of the mantras are in regular verse, others are 'held together more by grammatical parallelism than by metre'. Avestan examples include the Gatha of the Seven Chapters (Y. 35-41), which is divided into lines and strophes or periods, but is stylized prose, not metrical. Early Latin and Umbrian litanies show the same characteristics, and so do formulae prescribed for utterance in Hittite ritual texts. Greek priests intoned non-metrical but formally structured prayers, as evidenced by the parodies in Aristophanes' Birds (864-88) and Thesmophoriazousai (295-311).

Similar stylistic features could appear in secular use in formal rhetoric or high-flown narrative. One may refer to the fragments of the earliest Greek and Roman orators, who were no doubt continuing and developing longstanding traditions. Their too conspicuous artifice was found unsuited to the serious art of persuasion and was toned down by their successors, yet it left a permanent mark on ancient oratory. In Ireland there was a form of writing called rosc or roscad, associated with legal and narrative texts. It embraced both syllabic verse in the older, non-rhyming style and a sort of poetic prose marked by alliteration, balancing clauses with grammatical parallelism, strained syntax, perturbed word order, and 'strophic' organization.

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