A Life Snippet


Life is a river, and all of us water molecules.

Most of us appear for a while and then disappear. Our middle name is Transient. We leave ripples, signs of our effect on other molecules, for a short while but they’re changing as fast as we are, and life moves swift, and death comes in due time.

But water molecules cannot write and we, as we join the currents of life, can.

So every now and then we will hear a snippet about someone who has already done all their living and dying, but left just a feint trace. I’m not talking about the great big figures of history, but the more straightforward sorts.

Today I bring you the man who invented Porson’s Law.

Classicists will groan; but stay your hand and click not away.

Those of you who know anything about Greek poetry will know that rhythm is all. The scholars have terms for every kind of beat, or foot, and every term is a mouthful. Why they couldn’t choose nice prosaic words to represent the whole Ancient Greek beatbox thing I will never know. It gives a new meaning to the term ‘pomposity’.

A few of you will know this subject far better than I do, and many will have come across iambic pentameter. The ‘iambic’ bit describes the beat: unstressed, followed by stressed. De – duh, de-duh, de-duh, de-duh. Etcetera.

Pentameter means there are five de-duh’s to a line.

When the Greeks wanted to let a stage tragedy all hang out; to cuss a little, to make one of their stage characters informal, they had a special rhythm to do it. It had six de-duh‘s to every line.

Enough, and away to Mr Porson.

Porson noticed that when one of these tragic lines ended in a word which went duh-de-duh,there was always a cheeky short syllable or monosyllable perched just before. And this was, to the scholars of Ancient Greek, a revelation. An epiphany. So much so that they gave Porson his law for all time, and thus he created the tiniest ripple in the great river of life.

You could remember him for this. Or use his conventional biography: the son a highly intelligent couple, a Norfolk weaver and the daughter of a shoemaker, he was brought up cleverly. He spoke Latin before he could speak French, his intelligence attracted attention and a group of intellectuals collected a fund for him to go to Eton; a  boy of remarkable abilities but once referred to as ‘an unwinning cub’ ‘he did not fulfil his promise and is rumoured to have stayed up at night during his time at the school, drinking.

He made it to Cambridge, and the rest is obscure academic history.

But I prefer to remember him by something a friend wrote about him.

It concerns a piece of Christian doctrine: the Holy Trinity. The idea that though there is one God, there are three incarnations of him: a father, a son and a spirit.

So one day, Porson was taking a stroll with a Trinity College friend round the streets, and past them hurtled a buggy with three men in it.

Porson’s friend spoke up. “There!” he said. “A perfect illustration of the Trinity!”

“No,” answered Porson. “You must show me one man in three buggies, if you can.”

There. A flash of incisive wit, and he acquires technicolour.

We are transient; but sometimes just a word dashed down onto paper can ensure we live forever.


22 thoughts on “A Life Snippet

  1. I failed my Ancient Greek O-level, so you must take anything I say with a pinch of salt!

    The lines you picture are from the beginning of the Odyssey (I recognised words like ‘man’, ‘O Muse’ and ‘Troy’):
    Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven |
    far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.

    Ironically, this metre is dactylic hexameter, six beats in every line, “each measure being a triplet of syllables with the beat on the first one … dum-da-da dum-da-da dum-da-da dum-da-da dum-da-da dum-da-da” (http://www.editoreric.com/greatlit/translations/Odyssey.html).

    I remember being told that a good modern example of iambic pentameter is from Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur:
    So all day long the noise of the battle roll’d |
    Among the mountains by the winter sea…

    A tragic poem indeed, and Tennyson doubtless chose iambic pentameter deliberately.

  2. Kate, I was most struck by your opening lines, especially this one: “But water molecules cannot write and we, as we join the currents of life, can.”

    But, I also believe that water does write – just not in the same way as humans. Over time, it leaves its mark on the caverns it carves out of rock as it rushes thru, its etchings along the roadways, its devastating aftermath from a flood, and its gentle trickle down a window. Each mark tells a different story of the water molecule’s passing.

  3. I’m sad to say, even when I had looked up old Porson I did not entirely understand his law, and as Wikki says,’It is very narrow in its scope: it applies only to Tragic (not Comic) iambic trimeters (Porson’s “senarii”), only to the third anceps of the line, and only when that anceps is followed by a word break; in these circumstances, Porson’s Law states that the anceps, if long, must be a monosyllable.’

    Maybe I’m just not clever enough?

    1. Hi Pseu 🙂 How lovely to hear your voice….hope all is well with you and the family. I think you just have to be immersed in this stuff; a little obsessive, to completely get its little obscurities. And what use that information is once you have deduced it, it is hard to say.

  4. I must admit that while I love poetry, I had a terrible time with the ancient beat box. It rattled loosely in my brain similar to Ohm’s law. My method of poetry madness has been simply to find those verses that resonate and then to copy the beat.

  5. It’s all Greek to me, of course. Not the iambic etc stuff – I once wrote a Really Awful Rhyme using the names of each meter in examples of their beats.
    Porson was porsonable rather than able?

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