[Milton-L] Final lines -- an observation

Ryan Paul ryanspaul at gmail.com
Thu Feb 24 12:33:11 EST 2011


As a graduate student I once gave a presentation on teaching the epic. I
made some notes from a number of sources on the subject, and I've pasted the
appropriate ones in this email. They are not at all comprehensive, but they
may give you a few ideas and point you in the right direction.

Ryan Paul

*Myrsiades, Kostas, ed. Approaches to Teaching Homer's "Iliad" and
"Odyssey." New York: Modern Language Association, 1987.*

Prose or Verse translation? <#_ftn1>

   - Prose: Accessibility; student literacy issues; more accurate rendering
   of text; English verse not suited to Greek poetic style.
   - Verse: Maintain distinction between epic as a poetic form rather than
   an early novel; preserve lofty tone, elevated style, emotional impact and
   - (Approximately 75% of faculty polled at the time prefered verse
   translations. Richard Lattimore is the top *Iliad* choice with Fitzgerald
   a distant second (Lattimore's *Iliad* praised for its stateliness and
   authenticity over Fitzgerald's more "impressionistic" translation).
   Fitzgerald's *Odyssey *takes the top spot by far over Lattimore's, and is
   praised for being more fun to read. )

*McLeod, W. "The Iliad and the Odyssey as Great Literature." 34-40.*

McLeod asks the obvious question raised by the title of his article: what
makes literature "great"? The greatness of Homer generally is taken for
granted by us literary types, but that doesn't mean that students (whose
knee-jerk reactions often will be to think of Homer as old, dusty, and
irrelevant) will agree. One criterion McLeod offers: the emotional impact of
the poem in its portrayal of universal human nature.

*Zaslavsky, Robert. "On Recovering Homer." 41-46.*

Zaslavsky takes the opposite stance, that the reader must be as Odysseus,
wandering through an exotic landscape. The goal is to preserve the
strangeness of the texts (even though they deal with values and issues not
totally foreign to modern readers) and understand that the appeal of the
poems lie in their exotic nature. He insists on reading the poems together
as the multi-faceted presentation of a complex and alien culture, rather
than reading them as precursors to modern literature or culture.

[J. Frank Papovich takes a similar approach in "Focusing on Homeric Values"
(47-56); he argues that one way for students to approach the poems is to
attempt to use them to recover the moral codes governing Homer's world.
Ditto for Michael N. Nagler's "Homeric Epic and the Social Order" (57-62).
John E. Rexine's "The Concept of the Hero" (71-76) also suggests focusing on
Homer's somewhat alien texts, in particular their anthropocentric character
vs. the Hebrew Bible's theocentric character.]

*Economou, George D. "Teaching Homer in Honors Composition." 84-88.*

Economou writes about his experience teaching both of Homer's epics to a
freshman composition class: "My position . . . was that to read Homer is not
only an educational necessity but a special privilege as well and to think
and write about his poems a unique pleasure" (85).

Schedule: ~3 books per week.


250-word journal assignment due every class, un-graded but required, used to
launch discussion.

   - First journal: On Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer":
   analyze the progression of metaphors and similes in the poem. Which one best
   expresses the poet's euphoria?
   - Some other journal themes: character description; the role of the gods;
   Achilles' character arc; interactions between men and women; Achilles vs.
   Odysseus; unfamiliar poetic conventions; social customs; moments of humor or
   extreme pathos; moments of insight into human nature; the importance of
   Homer to later writers; Odysseus in Hades; defenses of the Achaians/Trojans
   & debates between "champions" of each side.

Papers, including:

   - Describe a personal experience analogous to the one in Keats' poem.
   - Short research paper on some topic (birth of Aphrodite, Zeus vs. the
   Titans, the building of Troy, etc.) and application of it to an
   understanding of the poems. Research materials include not only scholarly
   works but other classical texts.

Caveat: Avoid the temptation to foist too much literary discussion or
history on students; instead focus on the texts as spurs for writing.

*MacEwen, Sally. "Homer as the Door to Critical Theory." 101-107.*

Unit 1: The Historical Context

   - Goals: To imagine the setting of the poem's composition, the realities
   of life, the nature of the heroic mythology, the attitude towards the past.
   - The nature of the oral poet vs. the modern writer and the implications
   that has for the nature of poetry, words, fiction vs. history, the
   definition of literature.
   - Since Homer's predecessors are unknown, how much of the literary
   context do we need to understand the work? What makes it "original"? How
   important are the epic conventions in understanding it?
   - What is the relation of myth to truth? How much does presentation/style
   influence perceptions of truth?
   - What are the choices Homer has in creating his poem? (How) does he
   overcome stylistic limitations?

Unit 2: The Significance of Style

   - Goals: To explore the relationship of style to meaning in Homer's
   - How do epic similes work to complicate the concrete and "superficial"
   style of Homer's poetry? Can they spawn more abstract or complex ideas than
   are carried in the literal, concrete words?
   - How do moments of divine intervention function, as literal or
   metaphorical events?
   - How does Homer handle chronology?

Unit 3: The Power of Writing

   - What is the relation between the structural unity of the work and the
   particular artistic choices made in the details?
   - How do the large movements and the small moments work together?
   - How do readers make connections between expression and idea?
   - How do readers work to unify the text, and is it equally unified to all
   readers in all times?
   - <#_ftn1>

[In "What the *Iliad* Might Be Like" (108-113), George E. Dimock encourages
a somewhat similar mode of analysis, with the focus on encouraging students
to experience the poem on an emotional level through the close analysis of
images/descriptions and what they evoke. Barbara Apstein makes a similar
case in "Actively Engaging Students with Homer's Poetry" (114-118), saying
that emotional engagement with the poem is the best way to overcome student
apathy, and that only after this connection to the poem is made can true
intellectual engagement with the work follow. In "The Study Question: An
Avenue to Understanding Homer" (119-124), Elizabeth A. Fisher stresses the
importance of guiding students with focused study questions prior to each
class session, so that students will have examined particular elements of
the text that prepare them for the larger themes of the lecture.]

*Powers, Janet M. "Teaching War Literature, Teaching Peace." Journal of
Peace Education 4 (2007): 181-191. <#_ftn1>*

Powers explores the ways in which various forms of war literature (including
classical epics) can be incorporated into a "peace studies" curriculum, an
emerging pedagogical method that assumes a human propensity towards goodness
and cooperation.

   - "An epic, by definition, must include a battle. Epics thus tend to be
   written in the early stages of a civilization, when it first begins to flex
   its muscles, savours victory, and seeks to celebrate its success" (182).
   - Epics tend to be repeated across cultures. The British and American
   educational systems in particular often have identified with Greek and Roman
   epics, celebrating their glories as their own.
   - Such traditional interpretations must be questioned, and the subtleties
   and nuances of epic poetry encourage critical engagement. For example, Homer
   and Virgil both offer detailed vignettes of those killed, creating a sense
   of the unique human loss involved in each death.
   - Such moments contrast with the ethos of heroic individualism and reveal
   the complex realities of warfare. Yet, Homer's inability or refusal to offer
   an alternative to the view that conflict is an inescapable part of human
   life asks us to reconsider the adequacy of our own ways of thinking.

[For a different pedagogical use of the *Iliad*, see Ted Westhusing and Tom
Palaima's "Epic Tale of Facing Up to Achilles Heel," *The Times Higher
Education Supplement*, June 11, 2004. This article describes an exercise at
West Point wherein cadets re-enacted various battles from Homer's epic.
Among the lessons learned: the importance of chance in battle (Hektor
sometimes died during his Great Day of Success, and Patroklus sometimes came
back alive), the importance of traditional martial values such as those
espoused by Homer, and the dangers of the rabid pursuit of individual

*Glasser, Jane Ellen. "Finding Ithaca: The Odyssey Personalized." The
English Journal 83 (1994): 66-69.*

   - Goal: To encourage students to personally engage with the *Odyssey* by
   reading Odysseus' journey as a model for the travels, explorations, and
   obstacles faced in their own lives.
   - Major discussion topics: nature of heroism; what makes Odysseus heroic;
   Odysseus vs. other heroes (Batman, Gandhi, MLK, Luke Skywalker, etc.); role
   of the gods in helping or hindering Odysseus.
   - Final project: narratives of their personal odysseys, read through the
   lens of the *Odyssey*.

*Margaret Fleming, ed. Teaching the Epic. Urbana: National Council of
Teachers of English, 1974.*

the book has a sample reading of the *Iliad* illustrating epic themes and
techniques, and the following suggestions for class projects:

1.      Explore one of the following aspects of the epic or its culture:
clothing; social customs; food & eating habits; education or training of
heroes; music; the place of women; art; weapons; values or ideals;
relationships of men and gods/God; relationship of men and nature; symbolism
– animals, numbers, color, etc.; foreshadowing – dreams, visions,
prophecies, etc.

2.      Write an analysis of the leading characters and trace the fatal flaw
in each.

3.      Analyze the structure.

4.      Identify the epic conventions and explain their effects.

5.      Analyze the role of settings.

6.      Explore one aspect of language: compare translations; vocabulary
words based on this epic; analyze the use of personal names or place names;
stories, sayings, or expressions that come from the epic; compare a
translation with the original.

7.      Compare the philosophies of 2 epics.

8.      Compare the behavior of the hero with that of a modern hero.

9.      Compare an incident in the epic with a similar modern situation.

10.  Look up the mythology or legends of the epic & compare with other myths
or legends that you know.

11.  Read, summarize, and compare modern stories based on incidents or
characters from the epic.

12.  Write some lines or verses based on the form of the epic.

13.  Write a modern epic.

14.  Write and produce a play using the theme and plot of the epic.

15.  Write a story about a character in the epic.

16.  Find art forms other than literature that are based on the epic.

17.  Make graphic illustrations of life at the time of the epic.

18.  Make models or puppets that show the clothing and weapons of the time.

19.  Organize a sports tournament with games and sports similar to those
described in the epic.

20.  Make models of the buildings, fortifications, or ships in the epic.

21.  Prepare a banquet using the foods and customs described in the epic.

22.  Make up a board game based on the epic.

23.  Draw a map of the journeys, campaigns, etc., mentioned in the epic.

24.  Make a PowerPoint presentation of one incident in the epic.

25.  Make a collage based on the epic.

26.  With other students, role-play one of the situations in the epic.

27.  With other students, stage mock interviews of the characters of the

28.  Make a comic strip based on the epic.


On Thu, Feb 24, 2011 at 11:12 AM, James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>wrote:

> On a note related to our very interesting discussion of the Iliad: I'll be
> teaching the Iliad for the first time this coming Fall in a Comparative
> Mythology course.  Any suggestions for teaching it?  Suggestions for
> individual or group activities, recommended approaches, companion texts,
> other works to pair with it, etc., would all be appreciated.
> Thank you,
> Jim R
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