Reading · Teaching

Beginning Dante, or Reading our Way to Paradise

I’m teaching Dante again.

I teach the Infernoin my Epics class, after we have read Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. It works beautifully, since we first encounter the Greek version of the aftermath of the Trojan War, then the Trojan/Roman; then we get to Dante, and he puts lots of those characters in his afterlife. Odysseus goes to Hades. So does Aeneas. It’s kind of a thing.
But nothing prepares them, really, for Dante.
The Type Scene of the Underworld Journey (Greek katabasis) is present in most epics, really.  The hero crosses over—literally dies—and brings back otherworldly knowledge to help his people. Gilgamesh, Hercules, Odin, Vainamoinen, Gandalf—so many heroes go and come back, and it’s a dramatic event in their storied lives.
But for Dante it’s the whole work.
For one canto at the beginning, poor Dante is lost, halfway through his life, wandering and trying to get somewhere, but he can’t do it alone. We can all relate to this. And it’s how he hooks us. Then his favorite poet appears, a literary and spiritual guide—Virgil, the Roman author of The Aeneid—and he offers to lead Dante along his edifying journey for as long as he can.
Dante the poet has a poet laureate lead him. Who would be our guide, we wonder? Someone whom we revere; someone who led us by example before they passed on. But before we can get too bogged down in thought, the journey begins.
Dante journeys to Limbo where he sees the spirits of Homer and other classical authors. This is where Virgil has been called from and where he will return when Dante’s tour is over. And we are introduced to Dante’s method and his mania at one stroke. He can put anyone who ever lived—real or literary—in the place he sees fit. It is a hugely ambitious task and a minor miracle that he completed it. So I guess it wasn’t mania—just drive.
The first sinners Dante encounters are the Lustful, and it’s one of my favorite passages in the whole Commedia. I spend a good deal of time on Canto V of the Inferno, unpacking it and reading it carefully with my students. One of Dante’s techniques is to have a soul tell her story (in this case, Francesca da Rimini, who had an affair with her brother-in-law), so he can understand the sin or virtue through a firsthand witness.
Francesca tells of how ill she was treated—trapped in a loveless marriage, she found what she thought was love just a little left of legal. And she first committed adultery at the instigation of a book. She calls the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere a “Galeotto” or go-between. It is after they read together the salacious details of the royal affair that brings down Camelot that Paolo first kisses Francesca.
Dante faints at this moment, and some read it as guilt. He, too, has loved where he should not have.
But I think it’s something else entirely. In an age where books are copied by hand, they can get miscopied very easily.  And in the case of Francesca and Paolo, they didn’t read thoroughly—they stopped before the lovers’ consequences were realized, so were tempted in to the same sin.
As Dante begins to tell of countless sinners and sins, he feels the weight of his responsibility and collapses under it. What if his text inadvertently–through sloppy copying or sloppy reading–leads others to Hell?
And so my students and I start another ambitious task—that of reading judiciously—with the hopes of making it to Paradise.
Picture Books · Reading

A Poem for National Poetry Month: The Cremation of Sam McGee

I’m weighed down with work this week, so borrowing words from someone else. Robert W. Service was born in Lancashire, England but sort of ran away to be a cowboy in Western Canada. And a poet. And a banker. Not necessarily in that order.
He wrote a bunch of poetry that my dad discovered when he moved to Alaska to go to college, and I grew up listening to my dad’s favorites. The ones dad chose were always funny, rollicking ballads (with the exception of “The Spell of the Yukon,” which reminded us both of John Muir’s reverential nature writing).
Here I reproduce for your reading pleasure and in honor of National Poetry Month, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which I lift shamelessly from the Poetry Foundation’s excellent website.
Next week I hope to have some more words to share with you. In the meantime, I leave you in Service’s capable hands:
The Cremation of Sam McGee
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”
On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.
And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”
Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”
A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.
There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”
Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.
And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.
Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”
Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.
Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.
I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; … then the door I opened wide.
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.

(The image is from Ted Harrison’s illustrated edition of the poem published in 1986.)

Living · Reading

The Noodle Dream

I’ve had a few moments with my kids lately that feel like Po having the Noodle Dream in the Kung Fu Panda movie. You know those moments when your kiddos bear out all their genetic programming and/or careful nurturing, and there is no denying they belong to you.

My daughter was studying for a test recently, and she was assigned a poem by Wisława Szymborska. This is not a poet people might expect me to have in my library, being a medievalist of the Germanic/Latinate persuasion. I know no Polish. But I have a dear friend who taught English in Poland for a year, the year that Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for literature, in fact. She decided I this was the perfect time to expand my VFOGI (Vast Fund of General Information), and she brought me a collection of poetry home from Poland.
So there I was, acting all cool, like “Of course I have Szymborska on my shelf. I’m well read.” And I pulled it, and she read more than the one poem her silly high school text book tempted her with, and she and I had a genuine moment.
She found the poem from her text book first. We compared translations and talked about how hard it is to translate poetry. We puzzled for a minute over which translation might be “closer” (as only people who know zero Polish can do), and then she flipped through that collection like I used to flip through card catalogs—looking for treasure.
She read aloud every poem that caught her attention, and I tried to hide the fact that I was weeping. I think I did.
She reads beautifully. She reads with feeling and clarity and good judgment and musicality. And she LOVES poetry.
What is it about poetry that appeals to teenagers? I remember a friendly argument with my dad when I was fifteen, that took place on our backyard porch swing one summer afternoon around dusk. He had just made the egregious error of saying it was “a pleasant evening.” I pouted a bit and protested that “pleasant” wasn’t enough. Things had to be electric and exciting, or you weren’t really living. And he smiled his Mr. Ping smile, where the dad notices his kiddo is just like him, and said “Someday you’ll come to realize ‘pleasant’ is pretty damn good.”
I think that’s what it is. Teenagers need electricity, and poetry is language like lightning.

(For those of you who missed Kung Fu Panda, Mr Ping is a goose who adopts a baby panda and raises him without telling him he’s adopted. When Po has The Noodle Dream, Mr Ping takes it as a sign that he is ready to commit to the family business and claim his birthright. It’s hilarious, but also feels very real.)

Reading · Teaching

Creation Myths as Backstory, or When Your Papa Really Was a Rolling Stone

I’ve always been interested in Creation Stories. Where we think we came from says a lot about where we want to go—who we want to be.  As I think through how my mythology class will change when my campus converts from quarters to semesters, I’m considering what texts to add. Now I teach Greco-Roman and Norse—the obvious addition would be another culture. Egyptian, maybe. But I’m also considering an anthology of a type of myth, like a broad, comparative collection of Creation stories.

Ovid serves wonderfully to illustrate the prevalence of Creation stories by supplying no fewer than four different accounts in the first book of his work.  Either humans were made by the great architect-god who separated the heavens from the earth, or maybe Prometheus sculpted them out of clay. Or maybe, after the war between the giants and the Olympians, when the conquered giants’ blood spilled on to their mother, Gaia’s, ground, she used the blood and dust to form humans.
Or maybe we’re all descended from Deucalion and Pyrrha’s stone babies.
In this fourth account of the creation of humankind, Ovid recounts the great flood that Jove visits on the earth to exterminate the corrupt humans. Of all the world, Deucalion and Pyrrha alone are spared as virtuous and deserving of mercy. If it sounds like the story of Noah and his family, it should. Deucalion and Pyrrha are both grandchildren of Iapetus, the titan father of Prometheus and Epimetheus, and his name is a cognate for Japeth, one of Noah’s sons.
So Deucalion is the son of Prometheus, and Pyrrha is the daughter of Epimetheus. They are first cousins, so the incest taboo didn’t apply, and they complement each other beautifully. But Deucalion is descended from Prometheus, whose name means “forethought.” It is Prometheus who creates humanity in one version of the Creation, and it is he who either gives the gift of fire or who teaches his creation how to sacrifice. If you believe the fire story, the gods became jealous because humanity acquired a skill that raised them above their prescribed station.
In another story Prometheus counseled mankind to sacrifice the useless parts of the animal to the gods, putting them on top so Jove would see them when he descended in his eagle form to retrieve them, and thereby saving the meat for the good of humanity. This first sacrifice became the norm, and Jove was tricked out of the best parts of the animal forever. In both these myths, Prometheus infuriates Jove to the point where he chains Prometheus to a rock and commands that an eagle rip out his liver daily. He must have been pretty angry.
Epimetheus, however, means “afterthought.” Poor Epimetheus. Second born, and second-class. Even though Prometheus warns him not to accept gifts from Jove, he can’t resist Pandora when she appears. And we have that happy couple to thank for all the ills of society that emerge when Pandora opens the forbidden box.
But this was a story about Deucalion and Pyrrha. Deucalion is Prometheus’s, but Pyrrha is Epimetheus’s child. When the flood comes, they cling to one another and sail in a tiny skiff, just trying to survive. When Jove lets the waters recede, they disembark and find a shrine of Themis to pray. The goddess hears their prayers and pities their loneliness, and her oracle gives, for an oracle, pretty direct orders: as you leave this temple, drop behind you the bones of the great mother.
Poor Pyrrha is scandalized. How can she desecrate her mother’s corpse by throwing her bones on the ground?
But Deucalion, the first literary critic, suggests they think metaphorically. Maybe the great mother is the Earth, and her bones are stones.
Pyrrha is pacified, and so is Themis, and the stones they drop behind them soften and shape themselves in to human forms—Pyrrha’s stones become women, and Deucalion’s become men. And we have our toughness, our hard-headedness, maybe also our rough edges, from our stony origins.
In an age where people take online quizzes to tell them what Harry Potter character they are or what color their aura is in the present, maybe it’s time to revisit the stories of our pasts. Knowing something’s true name or its origin gives you power over it, or so the stories go, so the real power will be when we can discern our own beginnings and understand why we are the way we are, not just bicker over the superficial results of those origins.
Oh, it’s going to be another good quarter.
(Picture taken on a trip to Bryce Canyon in Utah, 2017.)