The basic foundation of Apollonius' style is that he writes his verse using the hexameter line, which is composed of a set sequence of long and short syllables, scanned according to their quantity. The opening line of Argonautica Book 4 would look like this, if these syllables were marked:
The rest of the text of the book maybe accessed and scanned through this website: http://hypotactic.com/latin/index.html?Use_Id=apollonius4. The principles of scanning an Hexameter line are explained in this attached document (see below) and at the associated internet link Both resources are owed to David Butterfield of Cambridge University.
The Style of Apollonius Rhodius.
Just after I had started to read the Argonautica, I showed the poem to somebody who knew quite a lot about the Iliad and the Odyssey but not so much about Apollonius. The main gist of his comments was: “This isn’t Homer! It’s written in hexameters but it’s not same.” I agreed. It is impossible to read a few hundred lines, without feeling that this is a different kind of writing. Although any attempt to categorise an ancient author may be futile, perhaps the word that epitomises the Alexandrian poet is his infinite variety. The opening of Book 4 is a case in point. The first two lines may allude to the openings of both Iliad and Odyssey, but the tone does not remain Homeric for long. The poet, breaking into the narrative, speaks in the first person, a thing Homer rarely does. His mind is in doubt about the path that his narrative should take. The manner is reminiscent of Pindar and lyric poetry. This does not last for long. A long complex sentence introduces and stresses the anger that Aietes feels about what has happened. The emphasis then switches to Medea’s fear. The language used to describe it is, at one moment, staccato, using short phrases, and enjambment to speed the narrative but, at the same time, full of allusion, intricate word order and rich euphony. Medea makes the decision to leave Colchis, her father, and family. She breaks into direct speech to mark the moment. Her words have the quality of a dedicatory epigram, as she leaves behind a lock of hair for her mother, sister, and family. At this important point, an unexpected simile interrupts the narrative, contrarily concentrating on her state of mind rather than her actions, before she completes her clandestine escape, described in Apollonius’ rapid style. A surprising, and quite bizarre intervention in the shape of a spoken monologue on the part of the goddess Moon changes the tone yet again before Medea’s escape ends with her joining the Argonauts on the banks of the Phasis and her throwing herself on Jason’s mercy. Although the opening of Book 4 is a particularly striking piece of narrative, an analysis of other sections of the poem might produce similar results. Apollonius constantly varies his writing, intent on engaging his reader’s attention. Here are some of the features of his style which enable him to do this:
- Similes contain some of the poem’s finest images (167-170) and comparisons.
- Narrative passages can move at a good pace, especially when a lively breeze is blowing (885), and the Argo is bounding along (922).
- Epithets are used sparingly; they only appear if their content is relevant to the context. This is particularly true of the opening of Book 4.
- The vehicle is the traditional Homeric language (Garson 1972), but formulae are often abbreviated, and exact repetition of entire verses is very rare.
- Elegant variation of expression is the constant aim, often emphasised and decorated by assonance, alliteration, enjambment, and elaborate word-order.
- Passages indicating the passing of the time, (“it was the time when . . .”- a traditional feature of the “old-epic”) are developed to a high degree and become powerful descriptive features, standing somewhat apart from the main narrative but still allusively linked.
- Descriptive scenes often give the impression that the poet has a particular work of art (423) in mind, or in actual sight, and is trying to convey that experience to his reader. Hence the use of phrases such as “you would have said, if you had seen it . . . you would never have stopped being pleased, if you had seen it.”
- The narrative structure frequently demonstrates precise attention to detail, in its use, for example, of ring-composition, the use of digressions, and, in general, the allusive nature of its exposition. The reader must often recall, words, phrases, and actions separated by some distance in the poem: scenes and sequences that depend upon one another factually and emotionally. The Argonautica is, therefore, a poem that must be read slowly and carefully, if its full impact is to be appreciated.
- In contrast, there are stylistic traits that operate on the more general level, adding a special tone to the whole poem. For example, a certain Epic objectivity pervades throughout the Argonautica. For the most part, we understand the emotions and feelings of the characters by our participation in their actions, rather than through commentary on the part of the poet. Medea’s inner turmoil before she meets Jason is, of course, an exception to this generalisation and that adds to the intensity of the middle passages of Book 3. The usual Argonautic reaction to dramatic happenings, however, is θάμβος(74)-amazement, astonishment, plain and simple, and then on with the action.
- Despite its basic objectivity, delicate moments of emotion do break through. When, for example, Apollonius beautifully describes the end of the bronze giant Talos (1688), he alludes to the pathetic formulaic line, Il. 4.504 (and often). Instead of the “brazen weapons” it is the “brazen body” that rattles in death.
- There are many similar emotional and realistic touches: female figures, at moments of crisis and drama, are portrayed as worthy of pity and sympathy (251). Jason, himself, won Hera's heart (3.65) for the long term by having pity on an old woman in a miserable situation. The way in which the Argonauts treat the unfortunate Phineus in Book 2 (435) is touching. The reception (4.994) that the Argonauts receive from Alcinous and Arete and their islanders is shot through with a considerable degree of luminous joy and serenity (4.1170). There are also homely and intimate pictures of childhood: we encounter an infant Achilles, in the arms of Cheiron’s wife, waving farewell to the Argo, Medea talks of the time, when Chalciope cared for her as a small child and there is talk of infants slumbering in the arms of women who have recently given birth (4.137).
- Apollonius’ poem is also not without humour: the action on Lemnos is mischievous and lively (774), Heracles, the great hero rows so hard that he breaks his oar, (1.1162) the goddesses at the beginning of Book 3 (52) interact and plot with delightful cynicism, the strange local spirits whom Jason encounters in the Libyan desert treat him with good humour and friendly irony.
- Another feature that distinguishes Apollonius’ poem is the way in which his characters express themselves directly. The speeches have a kind of polished elegance that seems typically Hellenistic and subtly different from Homeric examples. They tend to be more tightly organised, shorter, more urgent in pace, allusive and rhetorical, aimed at sophisticated literary audience.
- These, then, are some of the variations in tone and stylistic traits that pervade the whole poem, all of which result from the poet’s constant search for different poetic tones and a Hellenistic loosening of the ancient epic monumentality.