Greek light and Greek letters January 17, 2010Posted by Jenny in classical studies, literature, memoir.
Tags: Greece, Homer, Iliad, Odyssey
When I was in college, I studied ancient Greek for two terms. My reasons were flimsy. I liked the way the Greek alphabet looked, and I had been in Greece the year before as part of a long hitchhiking trip. The idea of Greece attracted me in a way I found hard to describe, something to do with the clear, powerful light streaming down on the sea. In those days I allowed myself to be governed by the ineffable.
I studied my first term with a delightful instructor only recently finished with his own studies. He had wavy blond hair and blue eyes that seemed of course Apollonian. I suppose I should have had a crush on him, but somehow he seemed like a picture to me and not quite real, and so I wasn’t devastated when he mentioned to our class of eight or nine people that he was soon to be married. I liked his approach: after covering the essential declensions and conjugations in just a few weeks, he set us to reading two passages from the Odyssey, a few lines each week, disassembling each sentence and putting it back together again. We read the opening lines: “Sing to me, Muse, of the man who has wandered far and suffered many sorrows,” and then jumped to the lotus-eaters and the Cyclops. When I look now at my little red book of the Odyssey, I see a stripe of grimy pages sandwiched between clean white ones, the pages that we went over so slowly. We didn’t have to memorize in Greek, only to read aloud correctly, but that was hard enough. Each of us had to make an appointment with our instructor to go to his office and read to him the passage in which the Cyclops asks his ram why he is leaving so slowly (it is because Odysseus is clinging to his underbelly):
“᾽κριὲ πέπον, τί μοι ὧδε διὰ σπέος ἔσσυο μήλων
ὕστατος; οὔ τι πάρος γε λελειμμένος ἔρχεαι οἰῶν,
ἀλλὰ πολὺ πρῶτος νέμεαι τέρεν᾽ ἄνθεα ποίης…
The next year, I transferred to another college—a small one in Florida—and I decided to take Greek again. The teacher couldn’t have been more different, a crusty old fellow, a Brit who’d lived many years in India. He had a swirl of thick white hair over his forehead that looked like meringue, and a very bronze sun tan. This time the class had only three people, and we met in his study. He would take his shoes off, lean back in his chair, and put his large cotton-socked feet up on his desk. Then he would bark out a noun, and we would shout back its declensions: “Logos! Logou! Logoi! Logon!” It was 100% grammar. If any of us happened to meet Professor Clough at the lovely Olympic-sized swimming pool (suitable for lap-swimming by the gods)—a frequent occurrence, since he spent most of his time there—he would shout across the pool with a noun or a verb so that we would put the hapless word through its paces. I did this for a term and then stopped. I felt no ill will toward Professor Clough, and I recognized that I had experienced, in a neatly transplanted cube of time and space, what countless English schoolchildren had gone through in days of yore.
I’ve forgotten nearly all of my Greek, though I can still work through the alphabet. But I still love Homer’s works. I’ve written in this blog about the wild animals of the Iliad (lions still prowled in Greece in Homer’s day) and about the image of the sea in the Iliad. My idea of Greece has stayed with me since I was a teenager, though I haven’t been back since then.