This course is designed to expose students to a wide variety of readings and topics they would probably not otherwise encounter in high school, and many do not encounter in college either. They collectively form at least part of the foundation of Western culture. As such the course contains a curious mixture of the familiar and the strange. An obvious problem is that all the original works we read in this course (i.e., except for critical works) antedate modern English, and so we have to read them in translation. But less obvious — and more subtly tricky — is the fact that they also antedate many modern sensibilities, contain ideas or presuppositions that cannot be translated, but need to be understood on their own terms. Some of these will be comfortably familiar; others will challenge students to stretch their imaginations in ways that may well be difficult. It is a challenging course, involving a lot of work, but students willing to do the work typically find it rewarding. It also will help considerably to contextualize what students are learning in Latin or Greek.
I have not found a single anthology or textbook that offers enough of these works to justify buying it; accordingly I have had to assemble our reading-list from a variety of sources, while avoiding a ruinous book bill. I have asked you to purchase a few great classic works that will be read entirely or almost entirely; other materials will be presented via the Web. Of these, some will be found at other sites devoted to classical and mediaeval literature; some will be local to this website: translations done by friends and family, or typed in from older translations now lapsed into the public domain; a few I have done myself. Where there is a good published alternative available for one of the Web-based readings, I have attempted to indicate this among the optional citations on the textbook page. You may buy any or all of these; you need not buy any. Whether you buy all the extra books or not, however, you will need to be on your toes, and be comfortable using a Web browser. For some of the items there are no options.
I have tried to follow a few structural principles in assembling the course:
- When feasible (perhaps two thirds of the time), I have drawn narratives from the three great imaginative seedbeds of the ancient and mediaeval worlds — namely, the story of Troy for antiquity, and the Germanic and Arthurian cycles of the Middle Ages. This should have two salutary effects. First of all, it allows the student to see something of the interconnectedness of these literatures, and how far from home they traveled. Second, when the narrative elements are familiar, it allows some of the formal differences between works to stand more prominently in relief.
- Each semester culminates in the reading of a work that is a kind of synthetic presentation of the full flowering of its culture. The first ends with the Aeneid of Vergil — both a quintessential expression of the classical vision and a complex response to Homer and all that intervened; the second semester ends with Dante’s Divine Comedy, which stands as perhaps the single most integrated expression of the mediaeval world vision — and also exhibits its enormous debt to Vergil as well.
- I have attempted to select pieces to reflect certain recurring larger cultural topics and themes: one of the best way to understand a society is to see how it dealt with the ideas it inherited. We will look at each culture’s vision of its God or gods; at what constitutes a hero; and at the place of the poet and artist in the culture.
- Finally I have chosen works to exhibit certain techniques of expression as they grew over time. Through one critical work (Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis) I hope to be able to introduce the student to the processes of critical literary thinking and analysis as it applies directly to the text. Auerbach, a Jewish scholar who fled Germany as the Nazis were rising to power, wrote the book in Istanbul, with only a minimal library at his disposal. The work stands as a proof that not all literary criticism is nonsensical, pedantic, or irrelevant, and though it is challenging even for adults, I have found that, with some parental help, the enterprising high school student can learn from Auerbach some valuable new ways of thinking about the written word.
The course has a very large reading list, and I have attempted to explain my overall rationale somewhat in the discussion under “General Expectations” and more specifically in the discussion “About the Reading List” (see the links in the top panel).
I have, finally, prepared a small volume, available through our bookstore or on Amazon, Western Literature to Dante: A Parents’ Guide, to help parents who would like more information about the course and its rationale to decide whether this course is suitable for their students, and to help parents who have already made the commitment to help their students get the best benefit from it.
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