I took a poetry course my freshman year in college that had a profound impact on the way I interact with the written word and with the world around me. Every Fall since that course, as I walk through piles of freshly fallen leaves, I recite Gerard Manley Hopkins in my head; I think of Gjertrud Schnackenberg on lonely winter nights; I call on W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas in difficult times. I can still recite the sonnet that I memorized for one of our assignments — we even had it read at our wedding last summer. I hold all these poems in my mind, and they help me express deep emotions and sensations that I would otherwise struggle to put into words. The director of the Iowa Latin program, Dr. Marcia Lindgren, summed this up beautifully last weekend in a conference presentation about a poetry recitation her advanced Latin courses do: “If you put a poem into your mind, it’s there whenever you need it.”
Of all the gorgeous poems we studied in that freshman poetry course, the one that has stuck with me most poignantly — the one that has been there whenever I needed it most — is W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues.” I was never required to memorize it for class, but I’ve reread it so many times over the years that I’ve unintentionally memorized it. The first time I read it, I was nearly brought to tears, and since then in times of loss it has helped me work through my grief. I’ve returned to it many times since my grandfather passed away last summer.
Last month I read a selection of Theocritus’ Idylls (mid-length poems on a wide variety of themes) in preparation for my PhD comps. Theocritus, an Alexandrian poet from the early 3rd century BCE and generally considered the founder of bucolic poetry, was part of the circle of intellectuals attracted to Alexandria when Ptolemy II Philadelphus built the Mouseion (which included the famous Library of Alexandria) and began recruiting scholars to make Alexandria the intellectual capital of the Mediterranean. In Idyll 1, a nameless goatherd asks the shepherd-singer Thyrsis to sing his award-winning song about the cowherd Daphnis, who wasted away and died rather than break his oath of virginity. Thyrsis obliges him, and more than half the poem is comprised of his song. In the song, animals and gods gather to see Daphnis dying and ask him what’s wrong; finally Daphnis himself gives a little soliloquy before he dies. I was so struck at Daphnis’ last words in lines 132-36:
“Now you brambles may bear violets, and you thorns may do the same, and the fair narcissus may bloom on the juniper, and everything may be changed, and pears can grow on the pine tree, since Daphnis is dying. Let the deer tear apart the hounds, and let the screech owls from the mountains rival nightingales.” (Trans. from the Loeb)
νῦν ἴα μὲν φορέοιτε βάτοι, φορέοιτε δ’ ἄκανθαι,
ἁ δὲ καλὰ νάρκισσος ἐπ’ ἀρκεύθοισι κομάσαι,
πάντα δ’ ἄναλλα γένοιτο, καὶ ἁ πίτυς ὄχνας ἐνείκαι,
Δάφνις ἐπεὶ θνάσκει, καὶ τὰς κύνας ὥλαφος ἕλκοι,
κἠξ ὀρέων τοὶ σκῶπες ἀηδόσι γαρύσαιντο.
If you followed the link to “Funeral Blues” up above, then you know where my mind immediately went:
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Of course it rings a bit narcissistic in the Idyll when Daphnis says this about himself, but the sentiment is the same: Nature will go completely out of whack because of this loss — but who cares what happens? He’ll still be dead. Nothing matters anymore.
I’ve tried not to admit this in my graduate school career because it makes me feel like a failure as a classicist, but I often struggle to connect to ancient poetry in the original language. I have never had a solid grasp on the various meters, and normally there’s so much reading to get through that I only have time to do just that — get through it — and can’t spend time trying to see what makes the Greek beautiful. But reading this Idyll was different. I always love seeing modern phrases and sentiments in ancient literature (my latest favorite is Cicero telling his BFF Atticus in a letter that he’ll facepalm at his news), but recognizing one of my favorite English poems here where I was least expecting it was simultaneously delightful and moving. Up to that point, the poem was mildly entertaining to me, but mostly just something I needed to know well enough to be able to write about it on my exam. Suddenly it became personal. It set the tone for the rest of my exam-prep Hellenistic poetry overview, in which I gave Theocritus and Callimachus a second chance and found I appreciated them much more than I had in my graduate Greek survey course three years ago.
These kinds of connections and resonances with modern literature are part of what makes studying Classics so magical, but we tend not to focus on them in our academic coursework. I wonder if Classics would find a new and enthusiastic audience if the process of discovering and drawing out these resonances were welcomed and celebrated and taken seriously in all of our literature courses, instead of only in specifically reception-focused courses. If we can connect our readings to our daily lives more intimately, we will retain them better and appreciate them more deeply. And if we can’t find connections to modern life, what are we doing? Let the deer tear apart the hounds, indeed.