Saturday, September 10, 2011

Homer and the Study of Greek

the famous essay by Andrew Lang, on the best way to teach young boys one of our ancient tongues:
It is clear enough that Homer is the best guide. His is the oldest extant Greek, his matter is the most various and delightful, and most appeals to the young, who are wearied by scraps of Xenophon, and who cannot be expected to understand the Tragedians. But Homer is a poet for all ages, all races, and all moods. To the Greeks the epics were not only the best of romances, the richest of poetry; not only their oldest documents about their own history,--they were also their Bible, their treasury of religious traditions and moral teaching. With the Bible and Shakespeare, the Homeric poems are the best training for life. There is no good quality that they lack: manliness, courage, reverence for old age and for the hospitable hearth; justice, piety, pity, a brave attitude towards life and death, are all conspicuous in Homer. He has to write of battles; and he delights in the joy of battle, and in all the movement of war. Yet he delights not less, but more, in peace: in prosperous cities, hearths secure, in the tender beauty of children, in the love of wedded wives, in the frank nobility of maidens, in the beauty of earth and sky and sea, and seaward murmuring river, in sun and snow, frost and mist and rain, in the whispered talk of boy and girl beneath oak and pine tree. more >>
From the introduction of Clyde Pharr's Homeric Greek, A Book for Beginners:
Homer is interesting not only to older students, but is particularly adapted to the youngest who now take Greek, as the earliest experiments, made with boys from nine to fourteen years of age, have amply demonstrated. He serves the double purpose of introducing them adequately to the language and of furnishing them with reading material as interesting as can be found in any literature, something too of permanent value ; and he should come by all means as early as possible in the course, that he may serve as a suitable basis for the development of those qualities of taste and appreciation, without which the study of all art is in vain. And after we have begun with him, we find his treasures inexhaustible. In Herbart's expressive phrase, "Homer elevates the student without depressing the teacher."
There can be no better preparation for ancient history than gaining interest for ancient Greece by the Homeric stories. The ground is prepared for both the cultivation of taste and the study of languages at the same time.
With regard to grammar, the February 1918 Classical Journal Pharr writes:
[Homer's] work is homogeneous in vocabulary, in literary style and idioms employed, and in metrical form; so that when students once get a fair start in him, further progress become easier and more accelerated. He employs all three persons, with all modes and tenses of the verb, so that all forms that are learned are used enough to be kept fresh in the students' mind and do not have to be learned again when they begin anything which is in dialogue form. His vocabulary is fairly limited, enough so in fact that it does not present any special difficulty to the beginner. His sentences are short, simple, and clear- cut, having none of the involved structure which makes so much of Xenophon really too difficult for first-year work. The verse, which has been considered a bar, is an actual help, as it is quite easily learned and is a marked aid in memorizing considerable portions of Greek, which is important at this stage.

Furthermore, the rules of quantity are a considerable help in simplifying and illustrating the principles of accent. As he uses only one type of verse, and that the simplest—the dactylic hexameter—the ordinary student usually becomes quite adept at reading this before the end of the first year's work.
Homer is so straightforward and simple in what he has to say, with nothing obscure, mystical, or far-fetched hi any way, that he is quite intelligible to an average high-school Freshman, and at the same time he possesses the qualities of high literary art in such marked degree that he appeals strongly to the oldest and most advanced members of any college class. And, most of all, to nine-tenths of those who take Greek, Homer is intrinsically interesting and worth while in a way that could never be predicated of Xenophon. Most students even now find him fascinating, in spite of the many obstacles thrown in their way as they approach him, and in spite of the fact that many of them have acquired a real distaste for Greek, developed all too often by our present system of routing all our classes via Xenophon.
Well, denn? Don't be a selfish louse. Start learning Greek today. If not for yourself -- for the challenge it presents and the rich culture it carries -- then do it for your children, for your immediate and extended family. Here is Clyde Pharr's Homeric Greek, A Book for Beginners, free online in PDF format from There are dozens of other grammars and readers free online now if you look around a bit.

Buck up, lads. Culture doesn't transmit itself, you know.

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