Verse in a prose setting

A different form of marriage between prose and poetry, sometimes given the dismal and inept name of prosimetrum, consists of text alternating between prose and verse. The prose provides the narrative or explanatory frame. The

95 Watkins (1995), 229-40 (Italic, Avestan), 249-51 (Anatolian), 255-64 (Irish), 267-76 (Indian).

verse passages are the more fixed or traditional elements, capable of being sung or recited on their own, but needing to be put in context at least by oral exposition, which then takes prose form in a written text.

This is an ancient and widespread format. An early non-Indo-European example is the Hebrew saga incorporated in the historical books of the Old Testament, which intermittently quotes songs that were sung at certain critical moments. At least some of these appear to be much older than the prose narrative, but they must always have been accompanied by some account of the circumstances in which they were sung.96

A pertinent Greek example is the pseudo-Herodotean Life of Homer, in the course of which are quoted some seventeen short poems, the so-called Homeric Epigrams, that Homer is supposed to have improvised in response to various situations. Again, the poems must be centuries older than the narrative in which they appear, much of which is constructed to support them. But most of them only make sense with the story to explain them, and they must always have been transmitted in the framework of some such account.

We see comparable narrative forms in the Indian Brahmanas and Jatakas, the Irish and Norse sagas, and Snorri's Gylfaginning. The songs or poetic speeches represent the dramatic high points at which the characters give vent to their emotions, as in the arias of opera. They tended to be handed down with little change, whereas the prose narration that threads them together could be reformulated by every storyteller. Many of the Eddic poems are of this category, and in the Codex Regius that preserves them they are mostly introduced and interlaced with explanatory prose passages. In earlier ages when poetry was entirely oral it must have been quite common for poets to supplement their recitals with accessory information given informally.97

97 Cf. Hermann Oldenberg, Die Literatur des alten Indien (Stuttgart-Berlin 1903), 44-7; Ernst Windisch, Die altirische Heldensage Tain bo Cualnge (Leipzig 1905), xlviii f.; id., Geschichte der Sanskritphilologie (Strasbourg 1920), ii. 404-14; H. M. and N. K. Chadwick, The Growth of Literature (Cambridge 1932-40), ii. 478 n. 2, 506; Dillon (1948), 2; (1975), 70-94, 147-53; Winternitz (1959), 88 f., 184; L. Alsdorf, Journal of the Oriental Institute of Baroda 13 (1974), 195-207; Dillon (1975), 70-9, 147-53; Durante (1976), 68 n. 10; McCone (1990), 37 f. (sceptical); W. Meid, Die keltischen Sprachen und Literatur (Innsbruck 1997), 48. It has been argued that the Welsh saga englynion are relics of verse-prose narrative: Sir Ifor Williams, The Beginnings of Welsh Poetry (2nd edn., Cardiff 1980), 126-42, cf. Chadwick-Chadwick, i. 44; criticism in Rowland (1990), 260-75.

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