Sometimes things connect. I find this frequently in my teaching life, my reading life, and my life life. Suddenly lots of themes and ideas keep recurring. I canâ€™t connect the dots among the areas Iâ€™m about to describe. Iâ€™ll just describe them, and we can all reflect on the uncanny connections.
In the midst of a February snowstorm, we found a little dog darting around in traffic on a busy street near us. I coaxed her to me, sent my husband on to the movie we were en route to, and took her home. She had no identification. Her fur was covered in ice, and she was shaking badly.
In the subsequent days (after warming her up, of course), we looked for her owners, to no avail. I bathed her and took her to the vet (7-pound Maltese mix, 1-3 years old, unspayed, possibly a breeding dog from a puppy mill, healthy), followed up leads, passed out flyers, talked to neighbors. No one claimed her.
To sum up, though we didnâ€™t want a dog (thatâ€™s the topic for another post), we have a dogâ€”a sweet, well-behaved, affectionate and tiny dog. We took many weeks to name her, because we didnâ€™t know we were keeping her. And weâ€™re not good at making decisions.
Weâ€™re reading some of the mythological stories from the Roman poet Ovidâ€™s Metamorphoses this semester in my upper-level Latin class. I love Ovid and first fell in love with Latin while reading him in my third-year high-school Latin class.
My students are a little suspicious of poetry and are not fans of love-related, nature-related, prettified subjects. One of them told me bluntly, â€œIâ€™m not lying. I want violence.â€ Ovid has that aplenty, and so I assigned them to read the story of Actaeon, who accidentally witnesses the goddess Diana bathing in a forest glade. She punishes him by turning him into a stag. His own hunting dogs then turn on him and tear him to bits. Thatâ€™s what you get for looking at a naked goddess.
In the course of the story, Ovid picks up the epic tradition of the catalogue, a long list of proper names. Scholars debate the purposes of these lists, which slow down the story for modern readers. They probably are intended to preserve some history and, in fact, to entertain the listeners (because ancient epics were recited) with the poetâ€™s virtuosic skill in incorporating these names into aÂ rhythmical poetic line. Homer catalogues shipsâ€™ names, and Vergil catalogues warriorsâ€™ names. Ovid, whom I often describe as a smart ass, catalogues the names of the dogs who attack Actaeon. Heâ€™s carrying on the epic traditionâ€”I call it an epic meme–and playing with it at the same time.
Ichnobates, Pterelas, Harpyia, Dromas, Tigris, Leucon, and so onâ€”the names go on for about 30 lines, all fitting in Ovidâ€™s artful lines. Translators have lots of fun. Sometimes they retain the names (mostly from the Greek), or sometimesÂ they translate them into related English words when possible. My favorite translator, Charles Martin, uses Blackie, Shag, Yipper, Brownie, and Buster, among others.
Naturally, my students suggested I borrow one of Ovidâ€™s dog names for our little Maltese mutt. Melanchaetes or Therodamas. anyone?
In March, my book group had decided to depart from our customary novels and nonfiction and try some poetry, coinciding with a visit to Cleveland by Robert Pinksy, former poet laureate and currentÂ advocate for poetry, on April 8th. Someone suggested we read a new Pinsky book, called Singing School, which purports to introduce readers to poems.
In fact, the book turned out to be a sort of handbook for would-be poets. Its offerings were difficult, and Pinskyâ€™s brief comments obscure, for everyday readers who want to understand and enjoy what they read. For example, Pinsky includes Andrew Marvellâ€™s â€œUpon Appleton House,â€ which goes on for thirty pages. Even the English teacher in the group, i.e., me, didnâ€™t get through the whole thing.
So most people didnâ€™t read much of the book. I was glad we used it, though, because I learned a few things and had fun deciphering the challenging poems, looking some of them up online for extra help. I worked my way through â€œChurch Monumentsâ€ by George Herbert, whom I studied in grad school.
These efforts reminded me that great works are not always accessible immediately. Frequently, they require some labor, whichÂ frequently pays dividends. Understanding how things are made explicates their meaning. One appreciates the work that goes into an Emily Dickinson poem by discerning that her lines alternate between four iambic feet and three iambic feet. Unraveling the grammar of Herbertâ€™s dense sentences helps clarify their intent.
This principle applies in all the arts. Knowing that Michelangelo took four years to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling (not really all on his back, but still) helps us appreciate it more fully.
Dogs need to be named. Our dogâ€™s name is Roxie.
I learned to love Latin poetry by plowing my way through Ovidâ€™s gnarly dactylic hexameter lines, day after day, when I was a teenager. Sometimes you want to tear your hair out, but you have to love a guy who names a dog Oresitrophos.