Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Classical Sunday

I had long thought this poem to be lost to me.  It had been introduced to me by my charmingly quirky mentor on my teacher training course at Durham twenty years ago, and I had used it myself subsequently a number of times in my teaching.  But then.... well, my last paper copy of it got lost in one of my numerous transfers of dwelling, and, in the days before computers and the Internet, that was it.  I'm not sure that this was ever published.  And, after the advent of the Internet era, I had tried repeatedly to dig it up online, but had always come up blank.  Then along came my endlessly resourceful blog-buddy JES to make me feel dumb and inadequate by rooting it out it for me fairly promptly.  As with the other long-lost poem he found for me, Edwin Muir's Suburban Dream, conventional thanks are entirely inadequate, but duly rendered anyway.
My teaching tie-in to this, since it is an irreverent, post-modern subversion of a well-known Greek myth, was often to begin with looking at the most basic story archetypes - The Quest and so on: the hero has a mission, the hero has special attributes or items to help him, he has monsters to defeat, and a girl is part of his reward.
During that first year of teaching I happened upon a particularly nice example of the way we have all internalized these simple story structures we learn in earliest childhood from myths and fairytales, and understand them better than we often consciously realise.  I think in fact this wonderful moment occurred in a marking exercise that had been artfully devised by my ever-playful mentor.  We were learning how to teach Latin to middle school pupils using a series of books called the Cambridge Latin Course, which had an ongoing narrative about a young Roman called Quintus who was driven from his home in Pompeii by the great volcanic eruption in 79AD, and subsequently wandered around the rest of the far-flung Roman Empire having various adventures.  In the second or third book in the series he was in Roman Britain and found himself at the court of a British king (the name escapes me; unimportant).  Courtiers aiming to assassinate the king introduced a performing bear which, goaded or released from its chains, ran amok in the royal dining hall.  Quintus was promptest to respond, picking up a nearby spear and running the poor bear through with it as it advanced on the king - thus ensuring that the rest of his stay in Britain would be very pleasant, I daresay.
Our mentor had given us an example of a simple comprehension test that could be set on this Latin passage (a nice alternative to just plodding through it, translating sentence by sentence around the class), and provided samples of genuine student responses to the questions set.
One of the questions was, unsurprisingly, why did Quintus kill the bear?  The expected answer was something like 'to save the king's life' or 'because the bear was dangerous'.
One student had written "because he's the hero".
Brilliant!  I wanted to give him an extra mark.
Anyway, the poem (thanks again, JES)....

One can get used to anything; the cave

Was dark, smelt bad, and twice a day the wave

Slopped on the floor; however much she swept,

Sand, bladderwrack and dead sea-urchins crept

Over the stones. The monster did not care,

But crouched preoccupied before the door,

Fretted at unsuccessful business deals,

Went out to fish and came back late for meals.

And when at last the heaven-sprung hero came,

Wing-heeled and gorgon-shielded, thirsty for fame,

Red-hot with bravery, he found her sitting

Upon a damp stone, busy with her knitting.

The monster lay asleep, and dinner stood

To simmer by a fire of smouldering wood.

The sword seemed pointless, something was amiss.

She stirred the pot. He had not come for this.

He was too late. The voyage had been too long.

The gorgon shield turned no ill thing to stone.

The gold helm hardly dazzled her at all.

She hung the iron ladle on the wall,

Stood up and faced him. Was the moment come?

But when the monster shivered in the gloom

She bent and spread a cloth over its coiled

Green limbs. The hero's attitude was spoiled.

Had he looked close enough he might have seen

A thin dry shudder where her heart had been,

But saw no thundering wrong to fight about,

Clattered his golden armour and went out;

Finding her patient unrebellious shape

No pretext for a plain heroic rape.

The tide was rising, and she turned once more

To sweep the dark sea from the door.

Graham Hough


JES said...

You're welcome, again. I (*cough* usually) enjoy these little research projects -- especially for a payoff as lovely as this "Andromeda."

Latin is the only "foreign" language I ever had occasion to learn. Naturally, your mentioning the Cambridge course sent me off on yet another hunt, since I'd never heard of it. I guess you know it's apparently still... still... thriving? healthy, at least -- at least apparently. Especially liked the filmed version of book 2, with what looks a bit like sub-Doctor-Who-Series-1ish production values.

Froog said...

Thank for those links, JES.

I never warmed to the Cambridge series myself; although I believe it is now - or was in the 90s - the most successful Latin course in the UK, and thus probably helping to keep the subject alive in our schools (in those handful of schools that still offer it). It didn't have enough on grammar for me!

I was raised on a much more traditional style of primer, Wormald & Blandford's 'Path to Latin'.

[Erm, is this an exclusively English thing - or perhaps an English private schools' thing - to refer to textbooks by the name of the author? It's such an entrenched convention that most of the key texts used in Law - Archbold (on criminal court procedure), Chitty (on contracts), etc. - have come to be named officially in this style; named, presumably, after the first, or seminal, editor, long since passed on.]

The Nag said...

Not forgetting Kennedy's Eating Primer of course. I do like the "because he's the hero" response though.

Swordsman said...


Froog said...

I do believe you're right, Swordsman.

Were you raised on Cambridge Latin?

Swordsman said...

One year of it before moving on to Wilding.

I was rather amused when Caecilius and co appeared in the episode of Dr Who set in Pompeii last season. Kris had no idea why I was howling with laughter.

Froog said...

Who was the writer on that one? It's disconcerting to find that our contemporaries are now writing Dr Who. (I find it even more of a cognitive speed-bump than David being Foreign Secretary or Boris being Mayor of London!)

Do you suppose they had to pay royalties for the use of these characters, or were the CLC people happy to collaborate in return for the oblique advertising?

Swordsman said...

James Moran is the writer of that one (born 1972), according to the Fount of All Knowledge (Wikipedia). Which of our contemporaries is writing Who? I'm a bit out of touch with such details, I'm afraid to say.