Golden lines, and others

Professor Charles Gordon Cooper draws attention to golden lines:
‘Golden line is the name given to a line in which the poet, taking advantage of Latin’s peculiar powers as an inflectional language, arranges his words:–

       adjective   adjective   verb   noun   noun.

scilicet et tempus veniet, cum finibus illis
agricola incurvo terram molitus aratro
exesa inveniet scabra robigine pila
aut gravibus rastris galeas pulsabit inanis
      grandiaque effossis mirabitur ossa sepulcris.
                                                Georgics I.493-497

‘The last of these lines—and it is a magnificent climax—is a golden line. By its means a dramatic effect is obtained which is denied to a positional language such as English.With grandiaque effossis we see something huge, mysterious, undefined, emerging from the upturned soil. mirabitur communicates the wonder and excitement of discovery. Not till the end of the line is the suspense relieved and the mystery solved. With ossa we recognize that the huge, strange things are human bones, and with sepulcris we realize that the plough’s furrow is a violated grave.’
Charles Gordon Cooper, An Introduction to the Latin Hexameter (Macmillan 1952).


Virgil uses a golden line when he describes how Dido is dressed for the hunt:

aurea purpuream subnectit fibula vestem.
                                                 Aeneid IV.139

We hear of gold and purple first, with their gleaming and glowing opulence; then the fastening, then the brooch, then the cloak. It all happens in the space of a second, but this process involves the listener.

Not a golden line, but similar in effect, is Virgil’s description of the Trojans’ happiness when they believed that the Greeks had gone home:

ergo omnis longo solvit se Teucria luctu.
                                                        Aeneid II.26

Such is an inflected language, and such are its requirements of the listener. Latin demands consciousness and mental process, and you don’t pick it up unconsciously.

Next post: Thoughts from 19th century America.

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