Background Knowledge

My brain refused to function Friday or Sunday evenings. Too long a day, with too much Day Job work, had drained the little grey cells. So I turned to poetry, including Shelley and Keats. “Ode to a Nightingale,” “The Destruction of Senacherib,” and other works, some new to me, some old favorites.

You know, unless you really have a background in Greek mythology and Biblical stories, the poems don’t make nearly as much sense.

In Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” the poet assumes that you know the four winds of Greek mythology, and what a Maenad is, and where Baiae lies. The answers are: Boreas, Notus, Zephyrus, and Eurus; a female follower of Bacchus, and the Bay of Naples in Italy.

Keats goes a little farther. “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” requires you to be familiar with that edition, with Cortez and where Darian was, and Apollo. “Ode to a Nightingale,” starts with Lethe (the river of forgetting), and a dryad (forest spirit.) Along come Flora and Hippocrene (a spring that came from the steps of Pegasus and was claimed by the Muses), “Bacchus and his pards.” Pard meant leopard or sometimes tiger. Sometimes. Understanding all the images in “Ode to Psyche” means you know the myths around Cupid and Psyche, and the symbolism found in them.

If you were reading Keats, Byron, and Shelley in the late1800s, you likely did catch all those references, because you’d grown up learning Greek and Latin, and the classical myths. You also knew the Bible stories, and caught references from the King James Bible. Today we provide students with terms lists and references, because unless they are unusual, they probably don’t know all the Greek myths and the Bible. I stumbled on Shelley’s use of “this daedel earth,” meaning crafted and finely made, coming from the name of  Daedaelus. The word first appeared in English in the late 1500s. You’d know that Zephyr was the west wind, the best wind, and meant good times and fair weather. That Halcion days came when the Halcion birds nested on the waters, and the gods turned aside storms for the birds.

I had a semi-Classical education. I read lots and lots of mythology and legends growing up, read the King James Bible, and the stories of King Arthur. Later I read Ovid and the Aenead in Latin class, along with Martial’s epigrams. On my own I read Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Aristotle, and a few other philosophers. I ended up giving myself a pretty good 19th Century education. I’m probably one of the last ones, because once the Internet came along, and computers before that . . . Everything changed. I was in a fast-closing window to the past, culturally. We just didn’t know it at the time.

This frustrates me a little, because I know that reading the great poets is a far richer experience for me than for my students. They don’t get all the references, can’t see what the poet is working towards unless we hold them by the hand and lead them. That takes the fun out of the reading.

Should we go back to the Victorian education system? No. Should we keep certain portions of it, and hold off on heavy tech use until students have a basic foundation of knowledge and cultural literacy? I believe so. The younger people (and older people) who don’t understand Western Civilization and what makes it so different are unwilling to defend it. They don’t know why protecting Keats’ nightingale is important, or why Andrea del Sarto sighed over Raphael’s art (Robert Browning, ‘Andrea del Sarto’).

A little Byron:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
   Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
   For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!
   And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
   And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
   And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

18 thoughts on “Background Knowledge

  1. Just after John Ringo & Linda Evans “The Road To Damascus” came out, I commented that with that title I knew something of the plot line.

    I was surprised at the number of people (in Ringo’s Tavern) who had never heard of a “Road To Damascus experience”. 😦

    • It’s partly a reaction to WWII, or rather the Holocaust.

      Yes, that sounds silly. The ‘logic’ goes something like:
      Saint Paul was a Jew who was party to the martyrdom of early Christians and quite enthusiastic about it.
      That might stir up hatred of the Jews.
      So don’t talk about it, because Never Again.

      Kind of like how the quotes in John 19 are frequently presented as being from “the people” or “the crowd” rather than the mob of Jews that Caiaphas had stirred up. (a really great bit of biblical fan-fic here)

      • Since stating the flipping obvious is sometimes required online:
        the fact of the crowd being Jewish is about as relevant to the guilt of modern Jews as the folks who did the actual killing of the Lord being Roman has to do with the guilt of modern Italians. Who they were is important to figure out motivations, and because it’s truth.

  2. A good way to get kids basically familiar with the myths is stuff like D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths— they’ve got Norse, too– which do a good job of keeping the sense of the original without being too gross. (Don’t get me started on the stuff in some of the astronomy for kids shows where Saturn “hides” his children, or Zeus “wanted to play tag” with various female figures.)

    • Ahh those were two of my favorite library books in grammar school. I think the librarian got sick of me checking them out on our library days.

    • Uggggggh. Hawthorne didn’t go that far.

      Come to think of it, they never used to have a problem with Saturn being an evil father who ate his kids, because a lot of fairy tales had baddies who wanted to eat kids. And it was standard to have baddies who wanted to capture girls and do something bad, even if they were not explicit about what, and to know that Zeus was a bad husband who was always going after other women.

      Geez, way to take the caution out of cautionary tales.

      • Heck, even the “swallowed them whole” thing for fairy tales and some versions of Chronos/Saturn’s myth keep the sense and scary of eating you without being, well, Goya’s painting.

    • If you think one has it . . .

      I SPRANG to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
      I gallop’d, Dirck gallop’d, we gallop’d all three;
      “Good speed !” cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
      “Speed!” echoed the wall to us galloping through;
      Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
      And into the midnight we gallop’d abreast.

      • John Dickson Carr used that for chapter titles in a murder mystery mixed with farce. I think it was =The Punch and Judy Murders= (but don’t quote me on that). The last facepalm is saved for the end. That’s where I met the poem.

        Great fun, and an extended study in technique.

        JDC also used Marmion in at least one place, =The Cavelier’s Cup=.

  3. My daughter became entranced with classical Greek and Roman mythology through a) having lived in Greece and been dragged through every classical temple, monument and museum there from the time she was in diapers, and b) being read the Asterix & Obelix comic books, with a top-off trip through historical sites in Rome, and a visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum.
    Whatever works… She did have some rather strange religious convictions as a kindergartner, though…

  4. An article over on American Thinker about the mixture of COVID-19 and totalitarian societies (and one in particular) sent me back to read =The Destruction of Sennecharib= a day or two ago. I’d forgotten how short it is. But everything seemed interminable in high school–excrpt LotR, which I discovered when my English teacher ignored the jock who sat in front of me reading =Fellowship=. By the time I got to ask him about it, he was on the second book. I got the first book out of the library the next evening, and was hooked.

    Some of my favorite popular reading from the early 20th century has references to common school-reading in English schools. I recall at least three references to =Marmion= (and no, I read only bits, not the real thing) and one to =How We Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix= (and maybe I’ve got the title right).

  5. Gamers usually know a fair bit of.mythology, as do anime fans. But yeah, there is a disconnect.

    When I was a kid, I loved the Isis half of the Isis/Shazam Hour. So when the downtown library had a book sale, I bagged the gigantic old Larousse Mythology and begged my parents to buy it.

    So, so unsuitable for a little kid. Way above my reading level. But also worth it, even with all the embarrassing naked statue pictures and meticulously recorded raunchy myths.

    Larousse editions today leave out a ton of info.

  6. I’ve done my best to corrupt my spawn in the ways of yore as I read to them before bed.
    I was never able to get through The Wreck of the Hesperua, though.

  7. Introduced my daughter to Kipling’s “Just So” stories at a young age, in the vernacular.

Comments are closed.