First of all, students will be inducted into the class as neophyte ‘scribes” and informed of the glorious future which awaits them as writers, by their pursuit of literature. Second, before the class commences with Homer, we will spend a day or two going over the background of the epics, covering some history, the outlines of the basic story, and a discussion about the development of the Greek language. This will be brief but will provide them with enough information to get started. More context and background will be supplied as we proceed through the text.
Although the technological devices available in the classroom can be seductive, this class will rely on the erstwhile technology of the book, pen and paper. I see less and less actual classtime spent reading books closely, aloud, or copying texts by hand, or reciting what has been learned by heart. The strategies of this class will rely more on the guidelines set down by medieval scholasticism than more recent, electronically enhanced methods (though a tape-recorder will come in handy).
This curriculum unit will be woven into a course on the fundamentals of writing. To write well most of the students need to learn to read better. Speaking well, reading well and writing well are closely related. The classical formula proceeds from reading aloud and copying down, to memorizing, then rewriting to detect errors, analysis of the construction, diction and detection of figures of speech. These roughly correspond to the basic five divisions of rhetoric which may be adapted to the needs of this unit: 1) Invention. 2) Disposition. 3) Diction. 4) Memory. 5) Delivery.
Delivery has to do with reading aloud. Although much of the reading for the course will be done outside of school, all reading in the classroom will be heard, with special attention paid to pronunciation and enunciation. Many Greek words are at first quite intimidating. I foresee that through constant exposure and constant practice, student confidence and ability will rise to the occasion. Quintilian writes that each student must always strive to learn, and use in speaking, as many new words as he can, and quotes Cicero from
On the Nature of the Gods
: “ Even words which have seemed harsh at first become softened by use.”
Memory is the mother of the muses, the essential ingredient of poetry. Memorization is something students will have to practice. They will be required to memorize a particular passage from Homer, the names of characters, literary terminology and unfamiliar vocabulary words. Weekly quizzes should keep them from straying too far from the mind-maintenance they will need to excel.
Diction, or word-choice, plays a vital role in good writing, vital to its style and substance. A student’s awareness of the many words available to describe any one thing will be dramatically enhanced by close examination of select passages, variously translated. Students will be required to write paraphrases of their reading, wherein they will need to find words which convey meanings as close to the original as possible, but with none of the same words. They will examine readings from the past and attempt to update them by rewriting them in contemporary language. They will also be faced with such assignments as coming up with a handful of synonyms for each word in a particular passage.
Disposition may be detected, or conveyed, by reading closely. Students must ask what the writer’s tone is, his attitude towards his material and subject, and the particular value of his perspective. They must consider for what audience, situation, period or occasion the work was intended.
Invention in great poetic works is something young students may be able to perceive, but they are not up to such a level that they can contextualize a work’s inventiveness, so as to say one great work is more inventive than another. Invention will play a role in their own work, but it will be invention within the confines of certain assignments. They will be asked to reinvent an episode or write a parody, or an imitation. They will create mock-heroes and fanciful epithets. They will be asked to write their own poems upon certain prescribed topics, such as the topos of the ideal landscape. Just prior to the Cyclops episode, Odysseus and his men land on an island of great natural beauty, a lovely place which reveals a very early use of the conventional “locus amoenus”, the “ pleasant” landscape. We read of “lush/ well-watered meads along the shore, vines in profusion.” There, he and his men enjoy a relaxing day of hunting and eating, temporarily worriless. This motif of the “lovely place” is familiar from the such examples as the “Garden of Eden” in the Bible, the eclogues of Theocritus and eventually in such epitomized landscape designs as “The Snow Man”, where Wallace Stevens gives us a different sort of lovely place. We will take a moment to contemplate the reality of such places as groves, forests, gardens and parks (like Central Park, designed, but “natural”).
Reading through the
, students will also come to recognize the elements of characterization and plot. There will be discussions of the effectiveness and ubiquity, throughout literature (and in films) of journey motifs and the quest for self-realization. This link is vital, for their journey through the book will be one of increasing awareness. They will consider themselves journeyman scribes on the road to enlightenment, as we digress after the Cyclops episode to consider some parallel texts also involving a cave, and the struggle of enlightenment against the barbaric tyranny of ignorance – that is, the already mentioned “Allegory of the Cave” from Plato’s
(with the assertion that of all things in life, the pursuit of the good is most difficult) and “The Declaration of Independence” where Jefferson writes that it is the tendency of humans to endure oppression rather than throw off their chains.