The term "golden line" originates in England. The definition quoted above is the earliest known use of the term, in an obscure Latin textbook published in England in 1652, which never sold well and of which only four copies are extant today. It appeared in some American and British Latin Grammars in the 19th and early 20th century. Only a few scholars outside the English-speaking world discuss the golden line. It is not found in any current handbooks on Latin grammar or metrics except for Mahoney's online Overview of Latin Syntax and Panhuis's Latin Grammar.
The term "golden line" did not exist in Classical antiquity. Classical poets probably did not strive to produce them (but see the teres versus in the history section below). Winbolt, the most thorough commentator on the golden line, described the form as a natural combination of obvious tendencies in Latin hexameter, such as the preference for putting adjectives towards the beginning of the line and nouns at the emphatic end. The golden line is an extreme form of hyperbaton.
There are about ten different definitions of the “golden line.” Often scholars do not explicitly offer a definition, but instead present statistics or lists of golden lines, from which one must extrapolate their criteria for deeming a verse golden.
Since there is no clear ancient definition, most modern scholars and teachers base their definition on what they learned from their first Latin teachers. Some definitions are very idiosyncratic. One scholar of British Literature completely missed the hyperbaton which is central to the form.
In all three tables, the first column is the total number of verses in the work in question, followed by the number of “golden lines” and “silver lines” in the work. More important for the purposes of comparison are the last three columns, which give the percentage of golden and silver lines in respect to the total number of verses. Aside from a few exceptions, only poems with more than 200 lines are included, since in shorter poems the percentage figures are arbitrary and can be quite high. See, for example, the combined percentage of 14.29 in the Apocolocyntosis. Similarly, other short poems that are not included on the tables, such as the Copa, Moretum, Lydia, and Einsiedeln Eclogues, have rather high combined percentages between 3.45 and 5.26.
Table 1 Golden and Silver Lines in Classical Poetry
|Poem||Total Verses||Golden||Silver||% Golden||% Silver||% Gold & Silver|
|Horace, Satires & Epistles||3981||14||4||0.35||0.10||0.45|
|Virgil Georgic 2||542||11||5||2.03||0.92||2.95|
|Virgil Georgic 4||566||5||2||0.88||0.35||1.24|
|Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudi||49||6||1||12.24||2.04||14.29|
|Statius, Thebais 1||720||5||3||.69||.42||1.11|
|Statius, Thebais 2||743||8||4||1.08||.54||1.62|
|Statius, Thebais 3||721||2||1||.28||.14||.42|
Unfortunately, no amount of statistics can prove that the golden line was a recognized form of classical poetics.
Table 2: Golden lines in selected late antique poetry
|Poem||Total Verses||Golden||Silver||% Golden||% Silver||% Gold & Silver|
|Dracontius, De laudibus Dei 1||754||6||2||.80||.27||1.06|
|Claudian, Panegyricus 1||279||10||3||3.58||1.08||4.66|
|Claudian In Eutropium 1||513||5||8||0.97||1.56||2.53|
|Claudian On Honorius’s Third Consulship||211||9||3||4.27||1.42||5.69|
|Claudian On Honorius’s Fourth Consulship||656||10||5||1.52||0.76||2.29|
As Table 2 shows, in late antiquity the use of golden lines remains within the general range found in classical times. Of particular interest is their use by Claudian. On the average the golden line crops up in every 50 lines of Claudian, but there are considerable differences between works. Table 2 gives his poem with the lowest percentage (On Honorius’s Fourth Consulship) and that with the highest (On Honorius’s Third Consulship). Figurative poetry, such as that of Optatian Porfyrius and, in Carolingian times, that of Hrabanus Maurus, rarely uses the golden line. These poets use a variety of hexameters praised by Diomedes--rhopalic verses, echo verses, and reciprocal verses. They use the golden line once or twice. The form is rather elementary compared to their usual pyrotechnic displays.
|Poem||Total Verses||Golden||Silver||% Golden||% Silver||% Gold & Silver|
|Caelius Sedulius, Paschale 1||352||27||1||7.67||0.28||7.95|
|Caelius Sedulius, Paschale 2||300||7||1||2.33||0.33||2.67|
|Caelius Sedulius, Paschale 3||333||16||0||4.80||0.00||4.80|
|Caelius Sedulius, Paschale 4||308||11||1||3.57||0.32||3.90|
|Caelius Sedulius, Paschale 5||438||7||1||1.60||0.23||1.83|
|Caelius Sedulius, Paschale, Total||1731||68||4||3.93||0.23||4.16|
|Corippus, Iohannis 1||581||31||0||5.34||0.00||5.34|
|Corippus, Iohannis 2||488||11||2||2.25||0.41||2.66|
|Corippus, Iohannis 3||460||7||2||1.52||0.43||1.96|
|Corippus, Iohannis 4||644||16||0||2.48||0.00||2.48|
|Corippus, Iohannis 5||527||18||3||3.42||0.57||3.98|
|Corippus, Iohannis 6||773||10||3||1.29||0.39||1.68|
|Corippus, Iohannis 7||543||17||2||3.13||0.37||3.50|
|Corippus, Iohannis 8||650||5||0||0.77||0.00||0.77|
|Corippus, Iohannis, Total||4666||115||12||2.46||0.26||2.72|
|Corippus, In laudem preface.||99||6||0||6.06||0.00||6.06|
|Corippus, In laudem 1||367||12||0||3.27||0.00||3.27|
|Corippus, In laudem 2||430||10||0||2.33||0.00||2.33|
|Corippus, In laudem 3||407||19||0||4.67||0.00||4.67|
|Corippus, In laudem 4||377||13||0||3.45||0.00||3.45|
|Corippus, In laudem, Total||1680||60||0||3.57||0.00||3.57|
|Aldhelm, Carmen de virginitate||2904||188||23||6.47||0.79||7.27|
|Ennodius, In Natale||170||4||4||2.35||2.35||4.71|
|Vita S. Erasmi||450||0||1||0.00||0.22||0.22|
|Vita S. Verenae||132||0||0||0.00||0.00||0.00|
|Passio S. Mauricii||252||6||2||2.38||0.79||3.17|
|Vita S. Clementis||984||6||2||0.61||0.20||0.81|
|Vita S. Ursmari 1||798||11||1||1.38||0.13||1.50|
|Vita S. Ursmari 2||220||2||0||0.91||0.00||0.91|
|Vita S. Landelini||529||6||0||1.13||0.00||1.13|
|Vita S. Bavonis 1||415||14||1||3.37||0.24||3.61|
|Walther de Speyer I||235||16||1||6.81||0.43||7.23|
|Walther de Speyer II||251||18||2||7.17||0.80||7.97|
|Walther de Speyer III||254||14||2||5.51||0.79||6.30|
|Walther de Speyer IV||252||11||1||4.37||0.40||4.76|
Table 3 reveals several interesting tendencies in golden line usage in the early medieval period. The fact that Caelius Sedulius, Aldhelm, and the Hisperica Famina have a pronounced preference for the form has long been noted. Corippus in the sixth century also uses the golden line significantly more than classical authors. Note that there is not a comparable increase in the silver line: If anything, these authors have fewer silver lines. This trend may be due to the growing fondness for leonine rhymes, which are facilitated by the golden line structure but not by the silver line. Another tendency, seen in Corippus, Sedulius, Aldhelm, and Walther de Speyer, is an extremely large number of golden lines in the beginning of a work, which is not matched in the rest of the work. Many scholars only tallied figures for the golden line at the beginnings of these poems, and therefore can have inflated numbers. In the first 500 lines of Aldhelm’s Carmen de virginitate, for example, there are 42 golden lines and 7 silver lines, yielding percentages of 8.4 and 1.4 respectively; in the last 500 lines (2405-2904) there are only 20 golden lines and 4 silver lines, yielding percentages of 4 and 0.8 respectively--a reduction by half. Corippus’s Ioannis and Sedulius’s Paschale have even more extreme reductions. These skewed percentages may indicate that the golden line is an ideal that is artfully strived for but which cannot be continuously realized over the course of a long epic.
Another possible explanation for the diminished use of golden lines within an author’s work (observed already in Virgil; see Table 1) is that, with time, poets may gradually free themselves from the constraints of the form. The golden line may have been taught in the schools as a quick way to elegance, which poets would use with increasing moderation as their experience grew. Two poems that appear to be juvenalia point to this conclusion. The Hisperica Famina is a bizarre text which is apparently from seventh-century Ireland. It seems to be a collection of school compositions on set themes that have been run together. Of its 612 lines, 144--23.53 percent--have the golden line structure. Most of the lines that are not “golden” are merely too short to have more than three words; or, occasionally, they are too long. These extremely short or long lines are due to the fact that the poem is not written in hexameter. It may be written in some rough stress-based meter, but even that cannot be stated with certainty. But the ideal model that the composers took for their verses appears to have been the golden line. Walther de Speyer composed his poem on the life of St. Christopher in 984 when he was seventeen. The percentage of golden lines is high, but the number of near-misses is enormous. When you read Walther you get the impression that he was programmed in school to write golden lines.
The large number of golden lines in poetry from the sixth through ninth centuries could reflect the combination of several trends, such as the preference for hyperbaton and the growing popularity of leonine rhymes. The statistics do not (and cannot) prove that the form was ever taught and practiced as a discrete form. Even if the golden line was not a conscious poetic conceit in the classical or medieval period, it might have some utility today as a term of analysis in discussing such poetry. However, the form now appears in canonical English commentaries to authors from Callimachus to Aldhelm and most scholars who refer to the golden line today treat it as an important poetic form of indisputable antiquity.
The English fascination with the golden line seems to trace back to Bede. Bede advocated a double hyperbaton, and also the placing of adjectives before nouns. In the examples from each criterion (double hyperbaton and adjectives before nouns) Bede includes at least one golden line, but from his other examples it is clear that he did not limit these injunctions to the golden line:
Bede’s remarks in his De arte metrica were repeated and made more strict by Renaissance guides to versification, ultimately leading to Burles’s description of the golden line. The earliest is the 1484 De arte metrificandi of Jacob Wimpfeling:
Scholars like to believe that their critical approaches to classical poetry are direct and immediate, and that they understand classical literature in its own context or, depending on their critical stance, from the perspective of their own context(s). However, the use of “the golden line” as a critical term in modern scholarship demonstrates the power of the intervening critical tradition. The golden line may originally have been the teres versus of Diomedes, but this fact does not legitimate its use as a critical term today. No commentators today count up versus inlibati, iniuges, quinquipartes, or any of the other bizarre forms assembled by Diomedes.
In all likelihood the golden line is a term gradually developed by Medieval and Renaissance grammarians, from Bede to Burles, but this indeterminate (and apparently unknown) pedigree does not explain its curious hold on Anglo-American scholarship. Far more interesting than the appearance of the golden line in ancient and medieval poetry is the use of the term by these modern critics. Today major works and commentaries on canonical poets in Latin and Greek discuss them in light of the golden line, and occasionally even the silver line: Neil Hopkinson’s Callimachus, William Anderson’s Metamorphoses, Richard Thomas’s Georgics, Alan Cameron’s Claudian, Andy Orchard’s Aldhelm. Most of these critics assume or imply that golden lines were deliberate figures, practiced since Hellenistic times and artfully contrived and composed by the poets in question. This process of scouring the canonical texts for such special verse forms is entirely in the spirit of the ancient lists of Servius, Victorinus, and Diomedes. Thus, in a curious way, the arcane wordplay that fascinated ancient grammarians has--in the English-speaking world, at least--come again to play a role in interpreting and explicating the central works of the classical canon.
These works are often cited in golden line literature, but they do not mention the term and are only peripherally connected to the form, except for Kerlouégan
1908 Friedrich Caspari, De ratione, quae inter Vergilium et Lucanum intercedat, quaestiones selectae. Dissertation, Leipzig.
1916 Eduard Norden, P. Vergilius Maro Aeneis Buch VI Teubner, Leipzig Berlin.
1949 J. Marouzeau, L' Ordre des mots dans la phrase latine. Paris 3.107.
1972 François Kerlouégan, “Une mode stylistique dans la prose latine des pays celtiques.” Études Celtiques 13:275-297.
Chronological listing of Non-English Golden Line Citations
1978 Klaus Thraede. Der Hexameter in Rom. Munich: C. H. Beck’sche. p. 51: “die Spielarten der ‘golden line.’ (The first mention of the golden line in non-English speaking scholarship)
1987 J. Hellegouarc’h, “Les yeux de la marquise...Quelques observations sur les commutations verbales dans l’hexamètre latin.” Revue des Études Latines 65:261-281.
1988 S. Enríquez El hexámetro áureo en latín. Datos para su estudio, Tesis doctoral, Granada (available in microfiche). Enríquez refers to the definitions of several English scholars, but he himself includes any line with a verb in the center, surrounded by two substantives and adjectives. He therefore includes (p. 331) the following examples of the áureo verso:
His áureo verso includes not only the gold and silver lines defined above (of which Enríquez cites a large number of examples), but also lines without any chiastic structure at all. Perhaps this definition (which strikes English-speaking scholars as bizarre) is common in Spain, because Baños and Antolín also use Enriquez's definition.
1990 Marina del Castillo Herrera, La metrica Latina en el Siglo IV. Diomedes y su entorno. Granada: Universidad de Granada. Connects Diomedes' teres versus with the áureo verso but does not define or elaborate.
1992 J.M. Baños Baños, "El versus aureus de Ennio a Estacio", Latomus 51 p. 762-744.
1993 Norbert Delhey. Apollinaris Sidonius, Carm. 22: Burgus Pontii Leontii. Einleitung, Text und Kommentar. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte 40. Berlin/New York, p. 86. (silver lines).
1994 J.J.L. Smolenaars, Statius: Thebaid VII, Commentary. Leiden: E.J. Brill, p. 37.
1995 Fernando Navarro Antolín, Lygdamus : Corpus Tibullianum III. 1-6, New York : E.J. Brill, 1995, p. 381 (follows the aAVbB form of Enríquez).
1998 Dirk Panhuis, Latijnse grammatica. Garant, Leuven-Apeldoorn "gouden, zilveren, en bronzen vers."
1999 S. Enríquez. "El hexámetro áureo en la poesía latina", Estudios de Métrica Latina" I, pp.327-340, Luque Moreno-Díaz Díaz (eds.).
2000 Christine Schmitz, Das Satirische in Juvenals Satiren. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2000, p. 148-9.
2004 Enrico Di Lorenzo. L'esametro greco e latino. Analisi, problemi e prospettive, Atti delle "Giornate di Studio" su L'esametro greco e latino: analisi, problemi e prospettive. Fisciano 28 e 29 maggio 2002. Quaderni del Dipartimento di Scienze dell'Antichità. Napoli, p. 77.
2008 Unknown author "GOUDEN VERS: PV in het midden + 2 adj vooraan + 2 subst achteraan (of omgekeerd)" http://www.stevenf.eu/latijn/stijlfig.html accessed April 3, 2008.