A Taste of Lyric

Greek lyric is particularly enjoyable on a day like today: pleasantly warm and breezy. I started with a bit of Archilocus; his particular style of snark appealed to me long ago, so I think it makes sense to start with him.

He’s known for a defiant attitude regarding traditional Greek values of civic service; he even goes so far as to advocate running away in battle in one of his poems. He was probably a mercenary soldier, so he may not have seen any need for national loyalty or civic virtue.

He had a rather difficult love affair with a young woman named Neobule, whose father decided that she ought to marry someone other than Archilocus, if we can take his poems autobiographically. Who knows…

His verses are interesting and memorable, and I find the interpretation of them fascinating, particularly the following couplet. I don’t claim to say anything new or interesting; it’s just some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately as I read.

Archilochus 2 translates this way (which I have translated not terribly poetically but more literally):

“On my spear is my kneaded bread, on my spear is the Ismarian wine, and I drink leaning on my spear.”

There is apparently much scholarly debate on the particular use of “en” which I have translated as “on.” It is an unusual use of that particular preposition, though I think it probably is meant to have multiple shades of meaning.

As a mercenary, he’s always on call for a battle. He seems to portray himself as a rough and rugged soldier type here who’s always out and about. Hence, he’s never without his spear. He’s not going to dinner parties or feasts; he’s out with the soldiers.

An interesting detail is that Ismarian wine is the sort of wine that Odysseus used to intoxicate the Cyclops in the Odyssey. Ismarian wine was notoriously strong, though Odysseus probably had a special vintage (as my commentary points out). I don’t know if there is any further significance to it, except that perhaps Archilocus got it during campaigns against Thrace, because Ismarian wine came from the coast of Thrace. The idea of Ismarian wine persisted in literature, through Virgil, Ovid, and Propertius.

At the same time, he seems to suggest that he earns his keep by means of his spear. His spear earns him his next meal and the wine he drinks. It seems reasonable to suppose that perhaps he meant it to have multiple meanings by using the preposition in an unconventional way, at least as far as we can tell now.

There is some scholarly debate over the preposition he uses, since it appears to be an unconventional use of the word “en,” but the meaning is clear enough.

Another interesting poem by Archilocus is a slightly longer one:

“But go on with your cup go down the decks of the swift ship
Go and knock off the lids of the hollow jars
drink the red wine down to the dregs
For we won’t be able to stay sober on this watch.”

Proof that human beings have been making alcohol jokes for as long as literature has existed. Some of the violent imagery here is interesting: namely the words he uses to tell his friend to knock off the lids of the jars and gulp down the wine.

This is kind of an interesting taste of lyric because it doesn’t really seem very refined or proper, like you might expect. It’s rough and sometimes kind of violent, at least, in the case of Archilocus. It captures a moment of his life, perhaps, being a soldier who had to keep watch late into the night and suggesting that the only way to tolerate the watch is to get drunk.

I plan to translate at least one or two poems from each poet in this book I ordered, and post them on my blog until I’ve got every author accounted for. It will help keep me motivated to keep reading and working on lyric, and also help me process them more deeply than I would by simply reading through them.

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Wandering into the Anglo-Saxon Age

My interests are definitely not limited to the classical world. I started working on Anglo-Saxon recently, which I have played with for years now but never had time to sit down and learn it. I decided to learn it entirely this time, and it’s been fascinating.

It will definitely help my understanding of English, but also my understanding of German, as it is far more Germanic than I initially realized. I really love the way the language works and the way it sounds. Plus, I may have a chance to use the language in comparative literature courses that I will be taking for grad school.

I’ve done with work some Middle English and Old Norse as well, so making those connections has been fascinating. Old Norse is like a cousin to Old English, and many of the words and mechanics of the language are very similar. There’s something chillingly beautiful and mysterious about both of these languages, as if they reflect the dark and dangerous times in which they arose.

Perhaps one of my favorite things about Old Norse and Old English is the presence of dual forms. The dual system is probably one of my favorite parts of Greek, which allows a verb to express action for strictly two subjects; not one, or more than two. I think it’s a wonderful thing, so I was very excited to learn that Old English had dual forms.

I may be able to do some really interesting studies of epic once I attain comprehension of OE, I’m still just working on grammar and memorizing forms at this point. Once I have a vocabulary and a framework of grammar, it will be fascinating to compare things like Beowulf with the Iliad, or some of the other lesser known epics. Old Norse sagas would also be great for that.

It would also be an ideal situation for bringing in some narratology to analyze some things, especially since I would be able to see what sorts of things remain the same and what things change.

I also have some reason to believe that my ancestors were Vikings and Britons, so I have a special fondness for Old Norse and Old English. I can’t wait to see what I can discover as I keep learning.

I have all summer to keep learning more languages. I’ve been gaining steady progress in German and am beginning to build a mental framework for it, simply by practicing consistently. I should be doing pretty well in all my languages by the end of the summer as I continue to strengthen Latin and Greek as well.

I’ve never liked summers very much. They’ve always felt too “in between.” I am enough of a workaholic that I don’t appreciate the sudden change from doing everything to doing nothing within a week, which is what happens at the end of every semester. Even still, there are some good things I can appreciate.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been dabbling in all my languages and learning about various things that I didn’t have time to look into while in school. Still working on Homer, though I took a small hiatus because I was working too hard and nearly had a mental breakdown. I plan to resume soon, though probably not quite as intensely.

I also visited my future graduate school to meet with my new professors and fellow grad students. I enjoyed my visit a lot, as I got to spend most of my day talking about classics-related things with people who have the same level of devotion to it that I do.

One of the professors discovered that I am interested in Herodotus (though I did not specifically discuss my particular obsession with Herodotus), and she told me that she thought I was likely to change my focus. It’s possible, I suppose, but it’s hard for me to imagine not being preoccupied with Herodotus, especially when you’re right on the edge of discovering something really juicy about him. Not wanting to appear arrogant or unwise or overly zealous, I simply nodded assent and said, “I suppose it is definitely possible.”

I may discover that I becoming totally entranced by something else when I start taking classes again with new professors. It will be interesting to see what captures my attention most of all, because I can certainly find something I really like in everything.

Now that I get to hyper-specialize in something, I am far more excited about being back in school. I don’t have to take any more general education classes in subjects I really don’t care about, when I would much rather be working on my research or reading something in Latin or Greek or something else. I really believe that grad school is the best place for me, at least for now. I would not be happy if my studies in classics ended when I graduated from my alma mater.

Grad school will certainly have its challenges and its ups-and-downs. I’m sure parts of it will feel like drudgery at times. I’m sure there will be ideas I disagree with and personalities I clash with. There’s always something. But despite it all, I am still pursuing something higher than myself and more important. I am seeking to preserve things that are worth preserving, and discovering something new about them if I can. That is the most worthwhile thing I could do and I am very eager to get started.

But for now, I’m mostly sitting around in my house reading and dabbling in various things. I didn’t hear back from any of my applications for summer jobs, though I have a few other things in the works that I will do instead. But none of that has started yet, so I’m waiting.

I ordered one book I will need for grad school, and I’ll start working on that as soon as I get it. I’ve been told not to spend my whole summer on Homer, but strengthen some of my weaker areas, such as tragedy or lyric poetry.

So I decided that I would work on Antigone while I have some time; though I think I might need more than Perseus for that since the Greek is difficult enough to merit a better commentary than Perseus offers. I can get through a lot just by piecing through it and figuring things out by myself, but commentaries are generally more efficient. I can likely come up with more interesting observations when I’m not trying to make observations that many scholars have made before me, simply because I don’t have access to what they wrote.

So now I have to wait. So much of life is just waiting. Waiting for school to start again. Waiting for people to return from trips abroad. Waiting for the next thing to come through. This is why I hate summers. There’s too much waiting.

Post Graduation

I have managed to graduate, and earned a degree in Latin and a degree in Greek. I somehow managed to earn departmental honors in both. However, my academic life is far from over. I’ve set some goals for myself over the summer, as my graduate classes don’t start until the end of September. On the one hand, that seems like a terribly long time to wait, but on the other hand, it is an opportunity to read and learn more. I will probably be very well-prepared to start my classes, especially if I have managed to plow through a considerable portion of my reading list. That will certainly be an interesting adventure.

Now that I’ve brought to a state of total inertia schedule-wise, I have been reading through the Iliad in Greek. I’m almost finished with Book 2, which is probably the longest and most tedious of the books. I decided not to skip the catalog of ships and men, otherwise I could have moved onto Book 3 by now. I also started rereading the Aeneid for the second time, while trying to finish up the first book of Caesar’s Gallic War.

I spent several hours yesterday working on German as well. I happen to have a copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in German which I hope to be proficient enough to read by the end of the summer. I should also brush up my French while I’m at it. I have a lot yet to learn, and will document at least a part of the process. I’ve decided to give my Herodotus studies a bit of a rest, in the hopes that I can return to it later with fresh eyes. I have other things to work on in the meantime.

I am very glad to have more education in classics to look forward to. If I were not going on to graduate school, I would feel that my undergraduate education was utterly insufficient compared to what I want to know, even though I went to one of the best colleges in the US. There is so much more to learn.

Next Steps in Life

I will, unfortunately, be graduating from my beloved alma mater in just 13 days. But all is not lost. My journey is not over. God willing, I will be earning a PhD at a very well-respected institution beginning this fall.

One of my recent reflections struck me as worthy of posting, simply because I think more people need to have this attitude: I don’t want to continue in classics because I think I’m good at it and want to keep being good at it. I want to continue in classics because I recognize how much I don’t know and how much skill I lack, and want to continue learning more and honing my skills. I don’t actually think I’m that good at it, to be honest. I just work hard and am passionate about it. Occasionally, I have half-decent ideas. Sometimes I make small discoveries that seem like magical occurrences. Even if it’s something that people have known for hundreds of years, it’s still new to me, and there is beauty in that.

There is immense pleasure in learning, far removed from whether I believe I’m good at what I do or not. There is pleasure in pursuing rabbit trails and making surprising discoveries. There is delight in being able to put in writing my discoveries, and make more connections. It is about passion for the subject, and not egoism or a desire to show off, or to be more well-read than another person.

The only thing about continuing into graduate school is that I will become hyper-specialized, and will have less time for my other interests. I am also a violinist, and maintaining a high level of fitness and technique takes hours every week that I will probably be unable to give. But I am not yet sure. Hopefully I can find things to do that will keep me playing and interested. I’m sure my other hobbies will suffer too, but I am less upset about those. I am sure this will be a very interesting year.