Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Year of Reading Classics

My background is in classics, as in "pertaining to Greek and Latin literature."  Picture a woman in graduate school reading The Iliad in Greek or Horace in Latin at a lovely coffeehouse called The Runcible Spoon, surrounded by her dictionaries, grammars, and flashcards.  Late in the day friends and I would gather, translating and occasionally looking up to chat.  We unwound and drank the coffee that enabled us to stay up and do 12 more hours of reading for classes.

My husband also studied languages, some of them ancient. We both taught Latin as teaching assistants, too.  Our apartment was cluttered with bookish paraphernalia of the trade. We spent a lot of time on the porch, handwriting flashcards, memorizing, translating literature, and swotting for our exams. Occasionally we inconveniently swapped flashcards or navy blue dictionaries.  We would pick up the wrong stack and find ourselves in different buildings, I with a pack of his German, he with a pack of my Latin.  

Classics is my background, in the sense that I studied in graduate school the ancient classical literature that had the strongest influence on Western literature up to the twentieth century. 

It comes from the Latin classicus, "a member of the highest class," referring of course to literature. I am classica (feminine singular nominative), being a woman, not classicus. The fascination with classics began when an English professor seemed not to know his classics very well.  He knew no Greek and had once studied a little Latin. I read the puzzling, elliptical translations of Lattimore and Grene.  I wanted to know more about Homer and the tragedians, much more.  I wanted to know more about Virgil.  I signed up for Greek. I signed up for Latin.

"To learn Greek is to know yourself,"  said my professor on the first day.

The Greek overwhelmed me with its gorgeousness.  It was my first love among languages.  Well, in a way.  

I began to know myself better when I took Latin.  I couldn't help translating Cicero, Ovid, Catullus correctly.   In a past life no doubt I was a Roman.  And the rich Latin literature overwhelmed me with its beauty.  Yes, Renaissance poets worshipped Virgil because he is the best poet in any language, writing his epic at the height of his maturity, as T. S. Eliot said, and at the height of maturity of the Latin language and the peak of the Roman empire.  I adored Catullus because he was so much fun.

At any given time I am reading something in Latin, occasionally something in Greek.  This year I have decided to keep a diary of it.  From November to November I will be posting notes about my reading. Occasionally I will reread something in translation and comment on it.  Sometimes I will compare translations to the original.  

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