Thursday, January 18, 2018

Glossary of Terms in Keats from Greek Mythology

John Keats (1795-1821) wrote these great odes in his early twenties.
The three Keats poems we take up on January 22nd contain many allusions to Greek myths.  In order to understand them on the highest level, it pays to understand the mythological backstory.  What follows is a handy glossary to the terms you will encounter in these poems.

"Ode to a Nightingale"


Dryad: wood-nymph

Hippocrene: fountain on Mt. Hellicon sacred to the Muses, the nine goddesses of arts and sciences.
Bacchus: Roman name for Dionysus, Greek god of wine

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"


Tempe: A valley in Thessaly, northeastern region on the Greek peninsula

Arcady: Mountainous interior region of the Peloponnesus
Attica: Most southerly part of the Greek mainland

"Ode on Melancholy"


Lethe: River in the Underworld

Proserpine: Goddess of the Underworld
Psyche: Beautiful daughter of an unidentified king.  Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was annoyed that people had ceased to worship at her shine because of Psyche's transcendent beauty. Aphrodite designed to make her son Cupid have Psyche fall in love with a man without wealth or reputation. Cupid and Psyche end up romantically involved in the end.

Additional note: "Ode to a Nightingale"

also alludes to the biblical story of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite woman who returned to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi after the death of Naomi's husband and her two sons, one of whom, Mahlon, was Ruth's husband. Though homesick, Ruth loves her mother-in-law. She finds a new husband, Boaz.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Hekabe-Agamemnon-Polymestor Triangle in "Hekabe" by Euripides

"Hecuba discovers the corpse of her son Polydorus,"
by André-Joseph Allan (1825-1926)
The captured Trojan Queen Hekabe suffers the loss of both her daughter Polyxena and her son Polydorus.  The Greeks have sacrificed Polyxena because she has been promised to join the slain Achilles in the afterworld.  Polydorus has been killed by the Thracian king Polymestor for the gold Polydorus had brought from Troy.

Hekabe tells the Greek king Agamemnon, "I seek revenge on one who well deserves it." Agamemnon agrees to allow Hekabe to pass through the ranks of his men in order to get near to Polymestor.

Hekabe feigns ignorance of her son's death to Polymestor, who lies to her in saying Polydorus remains alive.  Hekabe  and her chorus of Trojan women lure Polymestor and his young sons into her tent with a promise of a cache of jewels. Once inside the tent, he is blinded and his sons murdered.

Agamemnon as the Greek leader must tread a thin line.  His army has defeated Troy, and to save face with his men he must not be seen to give assistance to a Trojan Queen in her pursuit of revenge. Nevertheless he considers her to be in the right. As he says to the blind Polymestor,


What you have done we find contemptible ...
  not the sort of fault we overlook.
I would condemn myself in acquitting you.
And this I shall not do.
Since you have unleashed evil,
  you must let it drag you where it will*

Perhaps Hekabe gains satisfaction for her grief through her attack on Polymestor.  She never does get back at the Greeks for what they've done to Polyxena.  It is up to Agamemnon to assert his authority as king.  His unease in this role is evident when he says, "I have no liking for the place I'm in. If I judge another's wrongs, it is because I must." Heavy weighs the crown.


*From Euripides's "Hekabe," Robert Emmet Meagher, translator; Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1995.




Friday, November 24, 2017

Euripides's "Hekabe"

On Monday evening we consider Euripides's "Hekabe," a drama concerning the aftermath of the legendary Trojan War.
Euripdes (484 - 407 B.C.)


Hekabe, widow of the Trojan king Priam, is taken hostage to Thrace.  The Tracian king, Polymestor, has murdered Hekabe's son Polydorus.  Her daughter, Polyxena is to be sacrificed on the grave of the Greek hero Achilles.

The Polydorus and Polyxena stories are separate sagas, yet they both flow through Euripides's presentation of their mother.  The British classical scholar H. D. F. Kitto writes, "The play, quite simply, makes its own impression, and that is its 'meaning' .... [Hekabe herself] is a symbol ... and the play derives its unity and power not from the symbol, but from the thing symbolized."*

*Kitto, H.F.D., Greek Tragedy, 3rd edit. (London: Methuen, 1961), p. 222.

Friday, October 20, 2017

O'Brien's "The Things They Carried": Vietnam War Stories

Tim O'Brien (1946-   )
On Monday evening we take up "The Things They Carried," the title story of Tim O'Brien's 1990 story collection based on his tour of duty as an infantryman in Vietnam in 1969-70. O'Brien occasionally interjects himself into the twenty-two stories in the collection, although mostly they are about his fellow soldiers. The book's title page states it is a "work of fiction by Tim O'Brien." The dedication, however, states "This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa," all of whom play roles in the title story and in fact throughout the collection.  O'Brien speaks of a "story truth" that underlies events, and you the reader might find the notion of "story truth" to be an excellent point of departure as you approach this narrative of the human tragedies of war.

Friday, September 22, 2017

"Lava Cameo" of Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland (1944-  )
On Monday our reading is "Lava Cameo," the first chapter of the Irish poet Eavan Boland's memoir Object Lessons.  The piece tells the story of her grandmother, born Mary Ann Sheils, who died in 1909 at the age of 31 in Dublin, leaving behind a husband and five daughters, of whom the youngest was Eavan Boland's mother. Interwoven with Mary Ann's story is the tempestuous history of modern Ireland. Embedded within these narratives is Eavan Boland's own struggle to find her voice as a poet.  She contends women have always been "objects" of poetry. They've been idealizations (for example, "muses"). As a result, Boland writes, "I found my poetry and my sexuality on a collision course." How is she to transcend that tradition to create authentic poetry, made by a real-life contemporary woman?

Friday, August 25, 2017

"The Smallest Woman in the World," by Clarice Lispector

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977)
At this coming Monday's meeting, we'll take a look at Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector's short story "The Smallest Woman in the World."

I've prepared a visual map of the story. In it you see that Lispector gives us two parallel narratives. They are (1) the story of French explorer Marcel Pretre and his amazing find, a 45-cm-tall and pregnant African pygmy woman whom Pretre dubs "Little Flower," and (2) the reactions of multiple readers of a Sunday newspaper supplement in which a photograph of Little Flower has been published.

My map serves as an x-ray of the bones of the story.  To get a feel for the organs, muscles and skin, we must immerse ourselves in Lispector's lush dense prose.

The comment by the final voice in the story, while "folding her newspaper in determination," is a real zinger at the end, and we'll talk about it.

Here is Tom's "Reader's Aid".  You can click on it to get an expanded view:



Friday, July 21, 2017

Poetry of Lisel Mueller

On Monday evening we take up four poems by the modern American poet Lisel Mueller: "Joy," "The Power of Music to Disturb," "Immortality," and "Into Space."

She was born Lisel Neumann in 1924 in Hamburg, Germany, and emigrated with her family to the United States in 1939.  In a PBS interview, Mueller stated, "By the time I started writing, English was almost like a first language for me.  I never wrote in German.  This gave me an advantage .... it made me more conscious."  

Mueller won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for her volume of new and collected poems, Alive Together.  Read the interview she gave the NewsHour after the announcement of the prize here.

Join us on Monday evening!