As I set about teaching Latin III Honors this year, I am doing so with a renewed spirit and goal. Previously, as I built my Latin program, I did so using Orberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata (LLPSI). My reasons for using this text are well documented here on this site; suffice it to say that I prefer a natural methodology over a grammar-based method and LLPSI helps initiate that.
But let’s get right to the point – Latin poetry is problematic. On the one hand, the debate about when it should be taught has many arguments. Some say early on, some say in year 3 or 4. I shrug over such pointless discussion because we have to gauge our intentions more carefully. Frankly, it doesn’t matter when it is taught if you have the right intention in the first place.
I was able to get a copy of Reginald Foster’s Ossa Latinatis Sola and it basically confirmed a lot of things for me. I remember being in grad school and hearing about this legendary father at the Vatican teaching Latin, for free, under a tree to anyone who wanted to show up. When I would head over to Italy in the summers to excavate, I romanticized about this opportunity but was never fully able to secure it for myself. His book, finally in print, is a much needed addition to our field and has really helped me shape things in my mind.
Foster’s teaching method says to use Latin – meaning the actual writings themselves from antiquity and others who developed mastery of the language – as examples to examine. His argument is that we should be using those writings to develop our own mastery of the language. This is the way things have always been done – if you wanted to be a master artist in Renaissance Italy, you copied and studied masterworks until you could produce one of your own.
Along with Foster’s book, LLPSI, and the concepts contained in the Total Physical Response (or Total Physical Response through Storytelling) system, I think we have the makings of a modern approach to teaching Latin that could potentially produce a Renaissance for the language.
At its core, we need to teach Latin for fluency – we need students to be focused on the end goal of producing the language, actively, and not just merely observing it and performing an autopsy by translating it from its spiritual and intellectual beauty into English. There are several key reasons for this and yes, I can tie it to my negative feelings about Latin poetry – so treat this as a bit of therapy!
Latin poetry always mystified me. We would read it in college and we would be told how much fun it is to read Latin poetry. Yet, I always felt I was trying to understand an inside joke – but that I was not in on the joke. The reason is simple; I was taught Latin in a grammar-based system and in order to understand the Latin, you had to be among the 4% of people who enjoy decoding things to understand them. Life is too short, I have better things to do with my time. It is inefficient to spend hours looking up every word in a line and then hunting down the various grammatical practices employed, parsing out each word in a poem to guess at its grammar along the way. It is painful and devoid of meaning. The only way I could arrive at an understanding was through the laborious prep work that had to be done and then, with a sweaty brow, I could offer up my translation to others in class who would then pick at various words to give their interpretation and shoot down my own.
It is the blind leading the blind.
I was not in on the joke because I did not speak the language. Over 2000 years of expression was being stultified because of my inability to grasp the language. Latin, it’s not you, it’s me. I ran away screaming from anything poetic in Latin. I shuddered at an elegiac couplet; a mere two lines of satire by Martial would pin me down for the count. I bended the knee and instead threw myself into prose.
There was something else painful about Latin poetry – scansion. It seemed ridiculous to me that people would spend time notating the various long and short syllables to form dactyls and spondees in the text just so they can reconstruct the rhythm. It was like talking about how to dance, and intellectually studying dance, but not being able to perform it because you just never could feel the music. Again, it was like an autopsy – we only talked about the shape and form and maybe the content, but true understanding had long evaporated.
To quote Del 3030 (aka Del the Funky Homosapien) from the Gorillaz, “Clint Eastwood”:
The essence, the basics, without it, you naked
Allow me to make this, childlike in nature
Rhythm, you have it or you don’t, that’s a fallacy
I’m in them, every sprouting tree, every child of peace…
It is now that I realize the problem is grammar-based teaching. This type of teaching is incapable of helping students understand something like the pulse and beat of Latin poetry. Rhythm is natural and obvious; it fills the soul and moves us by its cadence naturally. The words would fall into place with the natural order that a Roman would witness each day being fastened into place by their laws, culture, politics, and military. It would be as natural as striking up a formation and marching; as natural as dancing. The pulse of life is within poetry’s grasp and yet, it alludes us. We are deaf.
So I ran from Latin poetry because my training prevented me from being fluent in the language. If you do not speak the language, you do not develop an ear for it and you cannot feel the natural rhythm that grows from the synergy of its words. Because we treat Latin like an autopsy (thus a truly dead language!) we have to artificially reconstruct it for it to regain life – even from its most fecund products. Latin poetry should be effortless and natural to any Latin ear; I liken it to someone freestyle rapping over a beat. Imagine that sight; students getting a particular beat and then dropping Latin words and phrases into place with confidence. If they have fluency, then they would have the ability to truly feel and understand its poetry – from the epic vistas of Vergil to the mystical mutations of Ovid. The very seeds of existence would lay before us because we are fluent in the language and do not have to rely on artificial constructs to arrive at a flickering clue in the encroaching darkness of our language.
Well, I apologize for the grand-standing. It is only now that I realize that my avoidance, personally, of Latin poetry was due to my poor training. Now, as I struggle to teach my students in a way that I desired to be taught, I see that Latin poetry can be not only accessible, but relevant and fun. I will be detailing this process a bit more carefully moving forward as I gather some resources. I welcome any comments that could help me bridge this method and help my students gain deeper understanding along the way.