Words that delight 2

Like Shakespeare, Homer sometimes uses a word or expression that makes people shiver with pleasure. One such word is ἠεροείδης: and its power is perhaps both in its five-syllable sound and in its meaning.

It is used twice in the Iliad:

Hera driving her horses, V.770:

ὅσσον δ᾽ ἠεροειδὲς ἀνὴρ ἴδεν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν
ἥμενος ἐν σκοπιῇ, λεύσσων ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον,
τόσσον ἐπιθρῴσκουσι θεῶν ὑψηχέες ἵπποι.

As far as the dimness that a man sees with his eyes
Sitting on a cliff and gazing across the wine-dark sea—
So far do they leap, the loud-neighing horses of the gods.

These three lines attracted the attention of Longinus (De Sublimitate, Ch. IX) who comments that their sublimity is overpowering: their negativity suggests something limitless.

There it is used predicatively, but on the second occasion in the Iliad, XXIII.744, it becomes an epithet, though an effective one for the distance of Phoenician voyaging:

One of the prizes at the games celebrated for Patroclus:

ἀργύρεον κρητῆρα τετυγμένον: ἓξ δ᾽ ἄρα μέτρα
χάνδανεν, αὐτὰρ κάλλει ἐνίκα πᾶσαν ἐπ᾽ αἶαν
πολλόν, ἐπεὶ Σιδόνες πολυδαίδαλοι εὖ ἤσκησαν,
Φοίνικες δ᾽ ἄγον ἄνδρες ἐπ᾽ ἠεροειδέα πόντον…

A mixing bowl chased in silver: six measures
did it hold, but in beauty it was the best in every land
by far, since craftsmen of Sidon wrought it well,
and men of Phoenicia brought it across the misty sea…

It is an effective epithet. In the accusative or dative, the word now has six syllables and makes two dactyls: ideal for the end of a hexameter. But the meaning is more important. A word so long, and so suggestive, dominates.

It is used fifteen times in the Odyssey: mostly in a similar formula, ἐπ᾽ ἠεροειδέα πόντον, or ἐν ἠεροειδέι πόντῳ; but also it is used in Book XII, not only of of Scylla’s cave but also the rock where it is situated. In Book XIII, where it describes the cave of the Nymphs on Ithaca, it is usually translated as ‘shadowy’.

One Oxford scholar and critic, Professor Walter Raleigh, tried to express this effect:

It is this negative capability of words, their privative force, whereby they can impress the minds with a sense of ‘vacuity, darkness, solitude, and silence,’ that Burke celebrates in the fine treatise of his younger days…  marked in the matter of negative suggestion; it is instanced by Burke from the noble passage where Virgil describes the descent of Æneas and the Sibyl to the shades of the nether world.  Here are amassed all ‘the images of a tremendous dignity’ that the poet could forge from the sublime of denial.  The two most famous lines are a procession of negatives:

ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram,
perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna.

¶ Through hollow kingdoms, emptied of the day,
And dim, deserted courts where Dis bears sway,
Night-foundered, and uncertain of the path,
Darkling they took their solitary way.

Here is the secret of some of the cardinal effects of literature; strong epithets like ‘lonely,’ ‘supreme,’ ‘invisible,’ ‘eternal,’ ‘inexorable,’ with the substantives that belong to them, borrow their force from the vastness of what they deny.  And not these alone, but many other words, less indebted to logic for the magnificence of reach that it can lend, bring before the mind no picture, but a dim emotional framework.
—Walter Raleigh, Style, Edward Arnold 1904, p.19