Elision and hiatus in early Anglo-Latin grammar and verse

Seppo Heikkinen
University of Helsinki


A central prosodic feature of nearly all Latin verse, classical and medieval alike, is the avoidance of hiatus, where a word with a final vowel, or in classical verse, a final m, is followed by a word with an initial vowel, (or, in classical verse, an initial h). In classical Latin, hiatus is eliminated by a process known as elision, or synaloephe, where the final vowel of the preceding word is fused with the following one or left unpronounced. The avoidance of hiatus is a feature of most medieval verse, as well, but early insular verse forms a notable exception: hiatus is abundant in many rhythmical Irish and Anglo-Latin hymns, and even in much of Anglo-Latin hexameter poetry elision is not systematically observed. This is a noticeable feature, above all, in the verse of Aldhelm and his followers, although Aldhelm himself gives a detailed description of elision in his treatise on metrics (De metris). Bede took an opposite line in his strenuous avoidance of hiatus in his own verse. In his metrical treatise De arte metrica he went so far as to condemn hiatus as a ‘pagan’ feature, a view which he attempted to corroborate with examples of Vergil’s artful deviations from the rules of elision. Bede’s reluctance to recognise hiatus for a contemporary rather than a pre-Christian feature reflects his attempts to show Christian verse in as favourable light as possible, although, in a roundabout way, he probably also tried to regularise the prosodic practices of Anglo-Latin verse. The present paper studies this discrepancy between Anglo-Saxon prosodists’ views on hiatus and the prevailing verse technique of the same period and suggests that some seeming idiosyncrasies in Aldhelm’s use of elision are, in fact, probably based on certain less-known practices of Late Latin hexameter verse.

1. Introduction

The Anglo-Saxons are acknowledged as the first non-Romance nation to compose Latin verse in the quantitative metres of the classical Graeco-Roman poetic tradition. This was no mean feat, as the classical system of syllable quantity had long since disappeared from spoken Latin even on the European continent, and the proper syllable lengths had to be gleaned laboriously from grammars and earlier verse (Lapidge 1979: 210; 1999: 272–273). An additional difficulty inherent in quantitative verse was the practice of syllable fusion and/or apocopation known as elision or synaloephe, which, at least judging by some results, was even more difficult to grasp for the Anglo-Saxon scholars. The individual solutions which Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury and bishop of Sherbourne (640–709), and the Venerable Bede (673–735), the earliest Anglo-Latin authors on metre, found in tackling this problem are reflected in the respective poetic works of these two scholars. The purpose of this paper is to shed light on some ostensible idiosyncrasies which are typical, above all, of Aldhelm’s Latin verse and to find a plausible historical explanation for them. Although Anglo-Latin practice regarding elision differs markedly from that of earlier classical and post-classical verse, it is apparent that at least some of its characteristics can be attributable to some less-known metrical practices of late antiquity.

2. Elision in classical Latin verse

One of the features of classical Latin poetry which invariably proves the most baffling to young students of the classics is the practice known as elision, or synaloephe, which, in the regular usage of the classroom, means that the final vowels of words are left unpronounced before words with an initial vowel. [1] Normally, elision is not indicated in writing, although some examples to the contrary have been documented in inscriptional evidence. The practice of elision is further complicated by some seeming irregularities of the practice: firstly, words ending with a final m are also affected, and elision also takes place before an initial h; hence, we can present elision as having the following four subcategories:

Elision of vowel before vowel:
Multa quoqu(e) et bello passus, dum conderet urbem (Verg. Aen. 1, 5)
[Having suffered much in war, till he should found the city].
Elision of vowel+m before vowel:
Ventur(um) excidio Libyae: sic volvere Parcas (Verg. Aen. 1, 22)
[It was to be Libya’s doom: so had the Fates foreseen].
Elision of vowel before h:
Divum pater atqu(e) hominum rex (Verg. Aen. 1, 65)
[The father of gods and the king of men].
Elision of vowel+m before h:
Anim(am) hanc effundere dextra (Verg. Aen. 1, 98)
[(That I could not) give my life at your hand].

The superficially strange role of final m’s and initial h’s is, however, natural if we bear in mind that both of them were very weakly articulated in classical Latin, and, indeed, it is generally assumed that final m may simply have nasalised the previous vowel (Allen 1978: 30–31). Unfortunately, for the uninitiated scanner of Latin verse, the complications do not end here: if a word with a final vowel – or m – is followed by the verb est (or es), regular elision does not take place, but, rather, the verb loses its initial e by a process known as aphaeresis, or, in some modern works, prodelision: [2]

Ac veluti magn(o) in populo cum saepe coorta (e)st.(Verg. Aen. 1, 148)

[And, as in a great nation (a tumult) has often risen].

Dulc(e) et decorum (e)st pro patria mori (Hor. carm. 3, 2, 13)

[It is sweet and fitting to die for your country].

Unlike regular elision, aphaeresis is often indicated in writing especially in inscriptional verse and the manuscripts of early Roman comedy, but this practice was never consistently observed, and Late Latin grammarians seem to have been largely unaware of its existence (Allen 1978: 123; Wright 1985: 265). What complicates matters yet further is that elision does not always take place, something which, yet again, is in no way indicated in writing.

The precise nature of elision is a matter of some debate. It is uncertain whether, in classical Latin, it involved the full elimination of a final vowel or whether some more subtle fusion of one vowel with another took place. We know with some certainty that the feature did exist even in the spoken Latin of the classical period: we may call to mind Cicero’s (perhaps deliberately) silly anecdote in De divinatione (2, 84) about Marcus Crassus who, upon boarding a ship, heard a fig-seller shouting “Cauneas” (figs from Caunus in Asia Minor).

Cum M. Crassus exercitum Brundisii imponeret, quidam in portu caricas Cauno advectas vendens "Cauneas" clamitabat. Dicamus, si placet, monitum ab eo Crassum, caveret ne iret.

[When Marcus Crassus was taking his army aboard at Brundisium, someone who was selling figs from Caunus kept shouting "Cauneas". Let us say, if it pleases us, that he warned Crassus not to go.]

This Crassus should have been able to interpret as “cave ne eas” (“don’t go”) and heeded the omen; in spoken Latin, ne eas would simply have been run together into neas. W. Sidney Allen in his Vox Latina, the standard work of reference on the pronunciation of classical Latin, has suggested that synaloephe in classical Latin could manifest itself both as the full elimination of a vowel (mainly if the word-final vowel is short) or as the fusion of consecutive vowels (Allen 1978: 78–82). Allen’s hypothesis, although plausible, is hard to corroborate, and Roman grammarians usually suggest the very straightforward elimination of the final vowel, even when their choice of terminology (synaloephe, or ‘fusion’, rather than elision) would suggest otherwise. [3]

Although synaloephe or elision, in other words, apparently did take place even in spoken Latin, in verse it was also a vehicle of artful literary expression. This is shown by the fact that Vergilian verse is distinguished by its extremely high instance of elision (50.5 cases for every 100 lines in the Aeneid) (Wilkinson 1963, 131). It is apparent that Vergil actually went out of his way to use this technique, sometimes producing effects that verge on the tortuous when the mood of the line seems to call for it, as in his portrayal of the blinded Polyphemus: [4]

Monstr(um) horrend(um), inform(e), ingens, cui lumen ademptum (Verg. Aen. 3, 658)

[A horrifying, shapeless, huge monster from whom the light has been taken].

3. Hiatus in Latin verse

Although the common practice of Latin verse involved the regular use of elision, this practice was far from consistent. Especially in archaic verse, elision is often neglected by a process known as hiatus (literally ‘yawn’). [5] Especially in early Roman comedy, hiatus is often used to indicate the change of speaker in the middle of the line (although surprisingly often elision takes place even across such changes) (Lindsey 1922: 239–242; Shipley 1924: 142). In the classics, hiatus often occurs in conjunction with Greek names or other metrical devices which were deemed “Graecistic”, such as unusual line-endings or caesurae, often in allusion to lines in Greek poetry (Winbolt 1903: 195–198; Nougaret 1948: 51–52; Raven 1965: 28). Sometimes a further feature known as correption, where a final vowel is shortened rather than elided,  takes place in conjunction with hiatus as in Vergil’s line (ecl. 3, 79) “Et multum formose, valē, valĕ, / inquit, Iolla” (“And (she kept saying), farewell, farewell, beautiful Iollas”), where the e of the second vale is shortened before inquit. One must also note the presence of the Greek name Iollas, as well as the coincidence of the hiatus with the end of a direct quotation; in effect, hiatus is here used as a form of punctuation. Sometimes an expressive purpose is evident, as in Vergil’s

Stant et iuniperi / et castaneae / hirsutae (Verg. ecl. 7, 53)

[Here stand junipers and shaggy chestnut trees].

The line has a spondaic fifth foot, itself another metrical Graecism (Winbolt 1903: 129; Raven 1965: 92), but it is also made tangibly “shaggy” by the two hiatuses.

4. Discussions of elision in grammatical literature

The presentations of elision in the Late Latin grammarians tend to be so laden with grammatical terminology as to be impenetrable. Their chief fault tends to be that they present elision as one of so-called metaplasms, or metrical licences, most of which may be of interest to scholars of grammatical nomenclature but have less bearing on the actual composition, scansion or metrical structure of verse. Most prominently, we encounter this feature in the grammars of Diomedes, Donatus and Isidore. We may cite as an example the list of metaplasms given by Donatus in his Ars maior:

Metaplasmus est transformatio quaedam recti solutique sermonis in alteram speciem metri ornatusve causa. Huius species sunt quattuordecim: prosthesis, epenthesis, paragoge, aphaeresis, syncope, apocope, ectasis, systole, diaeresis, episynaliphe, synaliphe, ecthlipsis, antithesis, metathesis. [6]

[Metaplasm is a type of transformation of direct and unbound speech into another kind for the sake of metre or embellishment. There are fourteen kinds of metaplasm: prosthesis, epenthesis, paragoge, aphaeresis, syncope, apocope, ectasis, systole, diaeresis, episynaliphe, synaliphe, ecthlipsis, antithesis and metathesis.]

The list mainly consists of terms for the various types of lengthened, shortened and transposed syllables one may encounter in verse. The terms synaliphe and ecthlipsis, on the other hand, represent various types of elision. Both of the terms appear also in other grammarians, who give them widely differing meanings. Although they generally agree on synaloephe being something smoother and ecthlipsis something harsh, there seems to be no general consensus among the grammarians as to their precise meaning. In Donatus, synaliphe signifies the elision of a final vowel or diphthong whereas ecthlipsis is the elision of a final m, a distinction that is at least understandable, although arguably superfluous, and this is the definition we also encounter in Isidore. [7]

5. Anglo-Latin grammar and verse: elision and hiatus in Aldhelm

The conditions under which the early insular scholars undertook the composition of Latin verse necessitated a more down-to-earth approach to the problems this metrical practice. Although even in the rhythmic, or non-quantitative, verse of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, hiatus is generally avoided, it is noticeably common in early insular verse. In early Christian hymns such as those of Sedulius and Ambrose, which served as models for the early insular poets, both elision and hiatus are relatively rare (Norberg 1958: 32–33). In the rhythmic hymns of the early insular poets, on the other hand, elision is, for all purposes, non-existent whereas hiatus is rife. As a prime example, we may cite the opening of the Irish 6th-century Altus prosator vetustus, traditionally attributed to Columba: [8]

Altus prosator, vetustus
Dierum/ et ingenitus
erat absque/ origine
primordii/ et crepidine
est et erit in saecula
saeculorum/ infinita.

[High creator, ancient of days, who was unbegotten and without origin at the beginning, and always shall be for countless ages.]

The verse structure of the poem is probably derived from the iambic dimeter employed in the  hymns of Ambrose and Sedulius, although without any observation of either syllable length or rhythm: [9] only the regular number of eight syllables per line remains, a feature that is common enough in much of early insular hymnody. We can also see hiatus in virtually every line. A later, and more subtle representative of insular rhythmic verse is Aldhelm’s Carmen rhythmicum, composed in what is generally termed the ‘continuous octosyllable’: [10]

Lector casses catholice
Atque / obses athletice
Tuis pulsatus precibus
Obnixe flagitantibus,
Ymnista carmen cecini
Atque rem sponsam reddidi
Sicut pridem pepigeram… (Ehwald 1919: 524)

[Gentle reader, catholic helmet and heroic hostage, driven on by your prayers earnestly entreating (me), I the poet have composed this poem and have thereby fulfilled the undertaking I contracted long ago] (Trans. Lapidge 1985: 177)

As we can see, the rhythm is more regular than in its Irish predecessor; all lines have the same antepenultimate accent (cathólice, athlétice, précibus, flagitántibus), and the poem, in this respect, bears a greater resemblance to its metrical antecedents. As we may observe, the use of hiatus is also considerably less conspicuous, a fact borne out by Andy Orchard’s statistics: the frequency of hiatus in Aldhelm’s Carmen rhythmicum is about one half of that in the Altus prosator – nearly 25  per cent of the lines in the earlier work have hiatus to 12.5 per cent Aldhelm (Orchard 1994, 39). Orchard has suggested that Aldhelm tried to limit his use of hiatus even in his rhythmic verse as a concession to the rules of classical metrical verse and that, in its use of hiatus, his Carmen rhythmicum would present an intermediate position between the earlier insular hymns and the practices of metrical verse (ibid.). This, however, is not to underestimate the prosodic problems inherent in elision and hiatus in Aldhelm’s metrical poetry.

Unlike their Irish predecessors, who presumably had little or no knowledge of syllable quantity, the early Anglo-Saxon scholars undertook to compose quantitative poetry in the classical metres, which presented several problems of their own (Roger 1905: 267–268; Lapidge 1999: 373). When it comes to metrical verse, most notably hexameter poetry, the questions of elision and hiatus served further to complicate the system of quantitative prosody, which in itself was challenging enough for the Anglo-Saxons, coming as they did from a linguistic background that was very different from that of their literary predecessors. The Anglo-Saxon scholars Aldhelm and Bede, who were the composers of the first Anglo-Latin treatises on metre, were accordingly compelled to incorporate the intricacies of elision into their presentations of verse technique as such, rather than treating elision as a side issue of merely theoretical interest. It is fortunate that both of these authors were also accomplished hexameter poets, which helps to shed more light on their grasp of its technical aspects.

The presentation of elision in Aldhelm’s De metris is indebted to the grammarians of late antiquity, mainly Isidore and Donatus, in its terminology: Aldhelm has simplified matters by referring to elision almost consistently as synaloepha (he also uses the term ecthlipsis but gives it a maddeningly ambiguous definition, probably because of the confusion that prevails in his predecessors). [11] He has also ignored Donatus’s list of other “metaplasms” and presents synaloepha as an integral element of verse technique. It is telling that Aldhelm’s presentation of elision is almost at the very beginning of his discussion of the hexameter before his discussion of its other metrical structures. This, more than anything else, demonstrates that Aldhelm, quite rightly, saw the mastery of elision as essential for the proper scansion of verse (Wright 1985: 185. Aldhelm provides several examples of elision in both Classical and Christian verse and often gives detailed examples of their proper scansion.

Licet synaloepharum velut quaedam conglutinatio et explosa collisionis additamenta crebro apud poetas lyricos et satyricos necessitate metri interponantur, quae maxime ex vocalibus litteris vel syllabis semivocali terminatis gignuntur. Has utrasque Iunius Iuvenalis quinto satyrorum libro, unius versus tenore simul elisit dicens:
    Omenta, ut video, nullum discrimen habendum est (Iuv. sat. 13, 118).

Scanditur: omen spondaeus, tut vide dactylus per synaloepham, o nul spondaeus, lum dis spondaeus, crimen ha dactylus, bend est spondaeus per synaloepham. (Ehwald 1919: 78–79)
[However, in lyric and satiric poets, because of the demands of the metre, there are frequently interspersed the coming-together, as it were, of synaloephae and additions removed by elision. These are chiefly caused by vowels or syllables ending with the semi-vowel m. Junius Juvenal in the Fifth Book of his Satires elided both these at one time in the course of one line,
    Oment(a), ut video, nullum discrimen habend(um) est. (Iuv. sat. 13,118)

This scans: omen spondee, tut vide dactyl by synaloepha, onul spondee, lum dis spondee, crimen ha dactyl, bend est spondee by synaloepha.] (Trans. Wright 1985: 192)

Like the grammarians of Late Antiquity, Aldhelm seems ignorant of the aphaeresis of the verb est, scanning the end of the line habendest rather than habendumst, but this, of course, does not affect the overall structure of the line.

Symptomatically, Aldhelm seems to treat elision primarily as a problem. In his verse, his use of the technique appears sparing and cautious, to put it politely. Aldhelm’s hexameter verse is acknowledged for its rough-hewn flamboyance, but its downside is its metrical monotony, which also manifests itself in his meagre use of elision. Obviously, Aldhelm struggled greatly with the technique, and his application of elision is at once idiosyncratic and formulaic. Firstly, he uses elision less than any previous Latin hexameter poet (except Claudian) (Orchard 1994: 80). In the whole corpus of Aldhelm’s hexameter verse, there are only 160 instances of elision, or one every twenty-five lines, and, as Andy Orchard has noted, this figure is probably inflated by reminiscences from earlier poets (ibid.). In most cases, elision is restricted to the first two feet of the line, and, curiously enough, elision of final m is actually more common than that of final vowels (Orchard 1994: 82). This feature is probably a symptom of hypercorrection, as the elision of m must have seemed even more alien to the Anglo-Saxons than the more usual elision of final vowels; the arguably redundant dichotomy of synaloepha and ecthlipsis in the grammarians may also have played a part in this unique feature. Yet more interesting is Aldhelm’s use of hiatus, or to put it in other words, his neglect of elision, which he does not discuss in his grammatical works. According to Andy Orchard, there are twenty-two instances of hiatus in his hexameter verse, a very high figure indeed, and, curiously, in seventeen of the cases this happens before an initial h (Orchard 1994: 84). Furthermore, of the remaining cases all but one, according to my observation, have a word-final m. There is only one case of a vowel remaining unelided before another vowel. Here are some examples of hiatus in Aldhelm’s verse:

Hiatus before h:
Sic modo / heroica stipulentur carmina laudem (Carmen de virginitate 20)
[Thus let these heroic (i.e. hexametrical) songs amass their praises]. – Trans. Rosier 1985: 103.
Verbum de verbo peto: / hoc psalmista canebat (Carmen de virginitate 33)
[I seek the word from the Word: the psalmist sang this]. – Trans. Rosier 1985: 104.
Hiatus after m:
Nam fontis laticem / oleo pingescere fecit (Carmen de virginitate 901)
[He caused the water of a font to grow thick with oil]. – Trans. Rosier 1985: 122.

It is difficult to attribute any expressive function to Aldhelm’s hiatus any more than to his elisions. It seems apparent that Aldhelm used elision because he felt he needed to, as it was part and parcel of hexameter technique, and resorted to hiatus when he could not. As hiatus in Aldhelm’s hexameter verse clearly occurs in cases where we are not dealing with “proper” vowels, it would be tempting to attribute it to the influence of earlier Insular poetry or the prosodic features of Old English. The study of Bede’s discussion of elision and hiatus, however, would seem to suggest an alternative model for this seemingly idiosyncratic usage.

6. Bede’s condemnation of hiatus – and an exception

Depiction of the Venerable Bede (CLVIIIv) from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Bede was, both in his verse and his writings on prosody, not only profoundly aware of the technique of elision but also deeply inimical towards hiatus. Bede’s treatise on metre De arte metrica displays a strongly pro-Christian favouritism in its use of pagan and Christian sources, and one feature of classical verse which he considers particularly symptomatic of ‘pagan’ verse technique is its occasional employment of hiatus. This view must be considered exaggerated: after all, even in classical verse, hiatus was an unusual feature usually consigned to the role of a special device, in emulation of archaic or Greek verse, or for unusual expressive effect. Nevertheless, throughout his work, Bede attempts to present Christian verse as more evolved than its classical predecessors, and devotes an entire chapter to the prosodic differences of ‘ancient’, that is to say, classical, and ‘modern’, or Christian, poets. Inevitably, Vergil’s occasional use of hiatus was, for Bede, a case in point (Heikkinen 2007: 106). Bede cites several Vergilian lines with hiatus, some of them also displaying the correption of a long vowel in hiatus (a merely marginal feature even in the classics). Bede also painstakingly classifies his examples by the type of word-final sound that is left unelided, apparently in an effort to leave no room for uncertainty:

Qui eadem libertate synalipha utebatur, siquidem et m, ubi voluit, in fine verbi positam a supervenientis vocalis absumptione reservavit, ut “iterum iterumque monebo” (Verg. Aen. 3, 436); et longam vocalem longam remanere permisit, ut:
    Sit pecori, apibus quanta experientia parcis (Verg. georg. 1, 4);

et longam, cum voluit, breviavit, ut:
    Et multum formose vale vale, inquit, Iolla (Verg. ecl. 3, 79);

    Credimus, an qui amant ipsi sibi somnia fingunt (Verg. ecl. 8, 108);

et diptongon reservavit, ut:
    Ulla moram fecere, neque Aoniae Aganippe (Verg. ecl. 10, 12);

et eandem breviavit, ut “insulae Ionio in magno” (Verg. Aen. 3, 211). (De arte metrica, ed. Kendall 1975: 131)
[He (Vergil) used elision with the same freedom, since, when he wished, he not only kept an m at the end of a word from being absorbed by a following vowel, as in iterum iterumque monebo (Aen. 3, 436); but he also permitted a long vowel to remain long, as in:
    Sit pecori, / apibus quanta experientia parcis (Verg. georg. 1, 4)
    (What care for the flock, how much experience for the thrifty bees);

he shortened a long vowel, when he wished, as in:
    Et multum formose vale, vale, / inquit Iolla (Verg. ecl. 3, 79)
    (And she kept saying, farewell, farewell, beautiful Iollas);

and in:
    Credimus, an qui / amant ipsi sibi somnia fingant (Verg. ecl. 8, 108)
    (Do we believe? or do lovers invent their own dreams?);

he kept a diphthong, as in:
    Ulla moram fecere, neque Aoniae / Aganippe (Verg. ecl. 10, 12)
    (For the ridges of Aonian Aganippe did not impede you);

and shortened it, as “in insulae / Ionio in magno” (“islands in the great Ionian sea”) (Verg. Aen. 3, 211).] (Trans. Kendall 1991: 143)

His final verdict is on Vergil’s use of the hiatus is unambiguous: “Quae cuncta posteriores poetas, ut dixi, distinctius observare repperies.” (“You will find, as I have said, that the later poets observe these things more conscientiously”). There is, however, one special type of hiatus which escaped Bede’s blanket condemnation. In his chapter on synaloepha, he contends that a word ending in a vowel and an m may escape elision if it its followed by an h. The examples are from the Christian epic poets Sedulius and Juvencus, whom Bede sought to portray as the paragons of good poetic style:

Quaecumque ergo verba in m terminantur, nisi adpositione consonantis alicuius defendantur, synalipha inrumpente syllabam ultimam aut perdunt semper aut minuunt, excepto cum ab h littera sequens sermo inchoaverit. Tunc et enim in arbitrio poetarum est, utrum haec instar fortium consonantium synalipham arceat, an pro modo suae fragilitatis nihil valeat. Valuit namque in hoc, quia voluit poeta:
    Nomine Iohannem hunc tu vocitare memento (Iuvenc. 1, 26);

    Progenitum fulsisse ducem, hoc caelitus astra (Sedul. carm. pasch. 2, 77). (De arte metrica, ed. Kendall 1975: 120)
[Every word which ends in m will always either lose its final syllable or have it reduced by the action of elision, unless elision is blocked, which happens when the immediately following word begins with any consonant except h. In that case, it is up to the judgement of the poets as to whether the h should prevent elision after the fashion of the stronger consonants, or should have no force on account of its weakness. It has the force of a consonant, since the poet willed it, in this example:
    Nomine Iohannem / hunc tu vocitare memento
    (Remember to call his name John);

and in:
    Progenitum fulsisse ducem, / hoc caelitus astra
    (The son and king has appeared, the star from heaven has witnessed it).] (Trans. Kendall 1991: 117)

It is worthy of note that Bede never made use of this licence in his own poetry, where elision is always meticulously observed (Jaager 1935: 50). His verse is, as a matter of fact, characterised by a high instance of elision (Bede’s Vita metrica Sancti Cuthberti has elision in 21.35 per cent of its lines, which is not outstanding by classical standards but high enough for his day and age) (Orchard 1994: 295). In his De arte metrica, Bede also emphasises that elision can be used in all parts of the hexameter line, possibly by way of contrast to Aldhelm’s practice of usually limiting it to its first two feet (De arte metrica, ed. Kendall 1975: 121; see Orchard 1994: 82; Heikkinen 2012: 116). Bede’s curious allowance for elision blocked by an m and an h, on the other hand, seems to reflect the late antique practice of treating h as an ordinary consonant, which we must now observe more closely.

In Late Latin verse, h frequently functions as a normal consonant would. Typically this means that it “creates a position”, or causes the preceding short syllable to be scanned as long. It would be tempting to attribute this feature of Late Roman prosody to Germanic or other vernacular influence, but apparently the reason is a simple quirk of flawed Vergilian scholarship. Dag Norberg in his Introduction à l’étude de la poésie latine médiévale presents the following explanation: The phenomenon is based on the Vergilian line “Terga fatigamus hasta, nec tarda senectus” (Verg. Aen. 9, 610), where, contrary to normal practice, the final mus of fatigamus is scanned as long. This is probably due to the following caesura, but Late Latin grammarians frequently attributed this to the initial h of hasta (Norberg 1958: 7–8). This definition, in turn, affected subsequent generations of poets, who recurrently treated h as they would a regular consonant, a feature which is particularly conspicuous in the verse of Venantius Fortunatus, where h not only creates a position, but also has the ability to block elision (Leo 1881: 424; see also Ceccarelli 2006: 203–219).

Servantur simul, ille fide, / hic corpore vivens (Ven. Fort. Mart. 1, 86)

[They are at once both saved, one alive in his faith, the other in his body].

Ad quem non solum / homines long(o) orbe venirent (Ven. Fort. Mart. 3, 409)

[Not only men came to him from afar].

This is a practice which Aldhelm does not discuss at all, but which is probably lurking behind his highly idiosyncratic use of hiatus, which, in his hexameter verse, takes place before an h in the overwhelming majority of the cases. That Aldhelm had difficulties coming to grips with elision is obvious, and his use of hiatus in his Carmen rythmicum follows the practices of earlier insular octosyllabic verse, but when it comes to his hexameter works, it is probable that his use of hiatus was influenced by his reading of the Christian verse of late antiquity, above all Fortunatus but possibly also Sedulius (Heikkinen 2012: 113). The differences between the use of elision and hiatus in Aldhelm’s hexameter verse and his non-quantitative Carmen rhythmicum suggest that he was, in fact, drawing on two different cultural traditions and that he perceived them as two distinct art forms. There is, in my view, no reason to exaggerate the extent to which one had contaminated the other or to underestimate the learning behind some of Aldhelm’s seemingly eccentric techniques. [12]

Bede’s strong hostility towards hiatus in dactylic verse is probably an attempt to prevent its contamination by features of insular poetry. Bede’s idea that hiatus in hexameter verse is a ‘pagan’ feature, based on a handful of Vergilian curiosities, is plainly a ruse to make it seem less attractive to Anglo-Saxon poets. Bede discusses the consonantal use of h in his chapter on “common syllables”, or syllables that can be scanned as either long or short, and wholly approves of its ability to create a position (De arte metrica, ed. Kendall 1975: 89). On the other hand, he does not approve of h blocking an elision except in the cases where it is preceded by an m; this is almost certainly his own refinement, based on his reading of Juvencus and Sedulius, whom he sought to exculpate of what would otherwise constitute a prosodic flaw (Heikkinen 2012: 113–114). Bede actually followed the practice he taught, whereas Aldhelm seems to have resorted to the consonantal h as a convenient way out of his struggles with the practices of elision.

It is worth remembering that, although Anglo-Saxon poetry is modelled after previous poetic practices, these practices are usually Late Latin rather than classical. Bede sought to present Christian metrics and prosody as a coherent system, apparently having in mind an ideal form of hexameter verse. Aldhelm, on the other hand, tended to pick and choose, but even his seeming quirks can, at least in some cases, be traced to the metrical practices of late antiquity, although in application the results may seem highly unusual. His use of hiatus and elision is a case in point.


[1] The Greek term occurs even in classical literature in two alternate forms (συναλ(ο)ιφή); hence the spelling of the term varies in Latin literature: synaloephe in Martianus Capella (3, 267) but synaliphe in Quintilian (9, 4, 109) as well as the majority of the Late Latin grammarians, sometimes (e.g. Bede’s De arte metrica, ed. Kendall 1975: 119–122) as synalipha (with a Latinised ending). See Liddell-Scott-Jones 1996: 1694; Georges II 1951: 2992.

[2] e.g. Winbolt 1903: 169; Raven 1965: 28; Allen 1978: 123. See also HWRh 1: 768. In Greek grammar, ἀφαίρεσις simply means the “removal of an initial letter”, or, in other words, the opposite of apocope (Liddell-Scott-Jones 1996: 285) and this is more or less how the Late Latin grammarians define it, their stock example being “temnere pro contemnere”. – See Charisius (gramm. I, 278, 15); Diomedes (gramm. I, 441, 20); Probus (gramm. IV, 263, 7); Donatus (Holtz 661: 4–5), Pompeius (gramm. V, 297, 6); Consentius (Niedermann 1937: 4, 16); Sacerdos (gramm. VI, 452, 5). The specific application of aphaeresis to the initial e of est is something they do not discuss.

[3] Allen himself admits at p. 82: “However, if the English reader chooses to apply elision in all cases of vowel junction, and thereby avoid the uncertainties inherent in other solutions, he will at any rate be no further removed from classical practice than some of the Latin grammarians were; and only very rarely will such reading lead to any ambiguity.”

[4] The line was a textbook example of a heavily elided line already in antiquity (e.g. Sacerdos at gramm. VI, 448, 8). See also Raven 1965: 92; Soubiran 1966: 636–637. Morgan (2010: 4) describes this as Vergil’s deliberate “uglification” of an epic hexameter.

[5] More generally, hiatus can refer to the simple junction of vowels, also inside a word. Latin hiatus, apparently first used in a phonetic sense by Cicero (or. 23, 77), is a calque for Greek χασμῶδες (or χασμωδία), used among others by Apollonius Dyscolus (De pronominibus 50, 11). Roman authors (Cic. or. 23, 77, Quint. 9, 4, 33; Gell. 6(7), 20, 6) inherited their dislike of hiatus from the Greek rhetoricians. See HWRh 3: 1395–1399; Georges 1951 I: 1959; TLL IV:3: 2686; OLD (2012) I: 871.

[6] Holtz 1981: 660–661. For a general discussion of metaplasms, see HWRh 5: 1183–1187.

[7] Isid. orig. 1, 35, 5. The grammarian Consentius claims nonsensically that in ecthlipsis, the first vowel of the word is elided (Niedermann 1937: 28), a definition that seems to have affected Aldhelm’s presentation of elision, rather to its detriment. Despite the occasional confusion in the works of the grammarians, the definition of echtlipsis as the elision of a final m is recognised as its standard usage in our works of reference, see TLL V:2: 60; Georges 1951 I: 2323. The usage of echtlipsis to denote a form of elision seems an innovation of the Roman grammarians. In Greek grammar, ἔκθλιψις appears to stand for a form of syncopation, as in Doric σκᾶπτον for σκῆπτρον (‘stick’). – See Apollonius Dyscolus (De coniunctionibus 230, 10); Liddell-Scott-Jones 1996: 507.

[8] Ed. Raby 1959: 59–68. See Lexikon des Mittelalters I (1980): 63; Brunhölzl 1975: 167. The identification of the author has, however, been contested by Stevenson (1999, 326–368), who argues that the hymn was composed by an anonymous  Hiberno-Latin poet in the latter half of the seventh century.

[9] The hymn’s direct model is presumably Sedulius’s A solis ortus cardine (Sedul. hymn. 2), which, unlike the Ambrosian hymns which are arranged into strophes of four lines, is ‘stichic’, i.e. without strophic form.

[10] The Anglo-Latin octosyllable, also employed by the eighth-century Boniface, is presumably based on seventh-century Hiberno-Latin models, although it, too, is ultimately derived from the non-strophic iambic dimeter of Sedulius’s A solis ortus cardine. – See Orchard 1999: 339.

[11] Aldhelm’s definition of ecthlipsis is apparently influenced by Consentius’s idea that it refers to the elision of an initial vowel (“si prior vocalis exploditur, erit sinalipha; si posterior fuerit explosa, erit ecthlipsis” – Ehwald 1919: 80), although his examples indicate that he simply takes it to mean the elision of final m. What exactly Aldhelm had in mind remains unclear.

[12] It is worthy of note that even Bede, ever critical of hiatus in hexameter verse, lauds the rhythmical hymn “Rex aeterne gloriae” as “pulcherrime factus” in his presentation of rhythmic verse (Kendall 1975: 139), although the poem virtually teems with hiatus (Klopsch 1972: 11). Although there is no rhythmical verse that can with any certainty be attributed to Bede, it is obvious that he did not regard rhythmic verse subject to the same laws of prosody as the hexameter even when it came to elision.


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