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Rhetoric and Poetry in Byzantine Homiletics

Vessela Valiavitcharska-Marcum, University of Texas at Austin, Junior Fellow 2005–2006, Spring

Despite the broad title, the research area of my dissertation is prose rhythm in Byzantine and Old Slavonic homilies. My goals are, first, to examine thoroughly the theoretical principles of prose rhythm outlined in Byzantine rhetorical treatises and commentaries, second, to test those in practice by applying them to homiletic texts of the fourth through tenth century, third, to determine whether there is any connection between prose rhythm and accentual poetry, and fourth, to see whether any of the Byzantine Greek principles of rhythm applied to the early (that is, tenth-century) translations of Slavonic homilies. I began my research with the idea that our understanding of prose rhythm has been confined mostly to the accentual cadence that defines the end of a sentence or clause, quite in contrast with how prose rhythm is described in the Hermogenic corpus, which the Byzantines studied extensively. Hermogenes and the authors of the Hermogenic corpus speak of prose rhythm as composed of word composition and end-of-clause cadence, which means that in order to fully understand Byzantine rhythm, we need to look at the entire clause or sentence.

My findings, based on Byzantine commentaries on the Hermogenic corpus and scholia on classical texts, are that the Byzantines did not think of prose rhythm as comprised solely of the clausular cadence, but as distributed in various ways throughout the sentence and the paragraph. Although they did use regular accentual patterns (as in accentual poetry), they saw the individual word, rather than a certain type of cadence or accentual foot, as the basic rhythmical unit of prose. Byzantine prose rhythm is somewhat similar to the rhythm of Byzantine accentual poetry in clause construction and ending cadence, but the rhythm of prose is much more varied and is perceived differently. There is, indeed, a similarity between Greek homiletic rhythm and the rhythm of the Slavonic translations of Greek homilies as shown by preliminary statistical data; this part of my research, however, is still under way.

My research took a surprising turn at Dumbarton Oaks when I discovered that Byzantine literary instruction included instruction in prose rhythm based on accentual patterns found in classical texts. The Byzantine teachers, in other words, sought out patterns of accentual responsion or other kinds of accentual regularity, whether deliberate or incidental, in classical texts and pointed them out to their students. The implications are that first, Byzantine prose rhythm includes accentual responsion, in a way similar to the rhythms of liturgical poetry, and second, that perhaps there are many more instances of accentual regularity in classical texts than we usually assume—a question involving intimate knowledge of the musical patterns of speech and barely studied by classicists.