By Elizabeth Adams
This year, those of us lucky enough to be taking Classical Literature and Writing have been inundated with epic poetry. We started off the year with the Epic of Gilgamesh and then waded through all 27,803 lines of the Iliad and the Odyssey. After a brief interlude during which we explored Greek drama, we read the Aeneid (our first abridged edition in the class!). Now we’ve finally made it Dante’s Divine Comedy, and we’re busy strolling through Hell (or the Inferno) with Dante and our buddy Virgil.
Suffice to say, we have read A LOT of poetry — one might even say that we’ve read epic amounts of poetry. This has required a lot of us, forcing us to come up with new ways of remaining focused on the words on the page (I for one have found myself knitting while reading Homer). We’ve fought to keep all of the epithets straight and parse out what was the will of the gods and what was the will of the human characters. We’ve read about more grisly deaths than some of us might have wished.
But this ridiculous amount of poetry that we’ve read is now lodged in our collective consciousness, and we’re able to distinguish the echoes of Homer in Virgil, the echoes of Virgil in Dante, and the voices that reach out into our own time and culture. These works are core pieces of the Western canon, and reading them has helped us to understand how on earth we (humanity) have got where we are. (They’ve also provided us with the ability to laugh at classicist jokes and esoteric fun facts, for which I am most grateful).
Recently, students wrote epic poems of their own, on topics as wide-ranging as office supplies, math homework, and personal mythology. The goal was to convey the weight and the mood of an epic. As we read our poems together in class this past Thursday, it was clear that we had all gotten the rhythm of these works stuck inside of us. Through the reading and writing (and reciting) that went on, we participated in an on-going process to get to the truth of things through meter and (sometimes) rhyme. So thanks Homer, thanks Virgil, and thanks Dante, for showing us how it's done.