Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Epic Poems

An epic is a long narrative poem. Most are very old. The word comes from the Greek word ‘epikos’, and the two most famous epics are Greek, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both written by Homer. Other famous epics include the Roman epic Aeneid by Virgil, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf from Old English, and the Ramayanna from India. Epics are some of humanity’s oldest poems, and were not written, but memorized. These long stories were organized into a series of episodes, to help people memorize them. They were written down hundreds of years later.

Epics usually have these ten characteristics:

1. They begin with an invocation to a muse – a god or goddess of art, for example Calliope, goddess of poetry (múza).

2. They also begin with a statement of the theme (téma). Homer’s Iliad combines this with the invocation, asking if the muse would sing a song about Achilles’ anger.

3. The story starts in the middle of the plot (dej), not the beginning.

4. They include heroes that are virtuous (cnostný) and go on quests (výpravy).

5. The characters travel to many different countries.

6. They use epithets (prezývky). Homer used many, for example Zeus was the cloud gatherer. Aphrodite was the laughter-loving. Achilles was the lion-hearted, Thetis was silver-footed. Men were high-hearted, women were the lovely-haired, and the sea was wine-dark.

7. They include a long list called an epic catalogue. The list might be enemies killed, or, in the Iliad, the number of ships that sailed to Troy.

8. They include long, formal speeches (prehovory).

9. They include gods and goddesses influencing life and events here on Earth.

10. They often show the hero suffering a series of tragedies, sometimes with a happy ending, sometimes not.


Bust of Homer, dated 2nd Century BC,
centuries after his death, a Roman copy

Homer was the greatest Greek poet and orator of antiquity, and was called the teacher of Greece, but very little is known about him. No one knows exactly where he lived, or when. Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian (called the Father of History) said that Homer lived around 850 BC, but some ancient texts say he was much older, near 1200 BC, the time of the Trojan War. The name Homer sounds similar in Greek to words for “hostage” and “blind”, leading to legends about him.

Homer and his Guide, by Bouguereau (1825-1905)

The Iliad

This poem tells the tale of the siege (obliehanie) and sack of Troy, by the Greek king Agamemnon. The story begins with an argument between this king and the hero Achilles in the final year of the war (which lasted ten years). Then it explains how the war started (Paris kidnapped Helen) and all the major battles, such as Achilles killing Hector.

The Odyssey

This is Homer’s sequal to the Iliad. It tells the story of the hero Odysseus, who fought with the Greeks, and helped end the siege after ten years. It was Odysseus who thought of making the Trojan Horse, a false gift of peace to the Trojans. Greek warriors hid inside and opened the gates, while the Trojans were celebrating. That’s how the Greeks won the war. The Odyssey tells of Odysseus’ ten year journey home, after the war, to the island of Ithica, where his wife was waiting for him. He had to face many dangers, including cannibals, pirates, sirens, Cyclops, drug dealing lotus eaters, and the goddess Circe, who fell in love with him. When Oddyseus finally came home, after 20 years, everyone thought he had died. Many men wanted to marry his wife, and they were all waiting for her to choose one. But Odysseus forced them all to leave.

The Aeneid

This tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who survived the sack of Troy, and travelled to Italy, where he defeated the Latins, and founded the Roman empire. It was written by Virgil between 29-19 BC, hundreds of years after the event.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Nathaniel Hawthorne Biography

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

v     Hawthorne was a novelist of the Dark Romantic period, as well as a magazine editor, surveyor, and diplomatic consul, and is considered one of America’s greatest writers.

v     He finished his first novel, Fenshawe, at 24, although he later tried to suppress it, feeling it wasn’t good enough.

v     He wrote several famous novels, including The Scarlet Letter, and The House of the Seven Gables.

v     He wrote many famous short stories, including “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Minister’s Black Veil.”

v     The story of Young Goodman Brown is about a man in a small, Puritan village who is visited by the devil. Mr. Brown resists temptation only to discover that everyone he’s ever known, his wife, his minister, his Bible-studies teacher, they all worship at the devil’s altar. Seeing the hypocrisy and evil of his town, he becomes bitter and cynical.

v     In 1862, Hawthorne wrote the essay “Chiefly About War Matters”, protesting the American Civil War. Published in The Atlantic Monthly, it was highly controversial, partly because of Hawthorne’s description of President Abraham Lincoln. But mostly, it criticized both the ignorant, slave-holding South, and the censorious, self-righteous North.

v     Hawthorne protested the Civil War because he was pessimistic about success, and because he didn’t see the need to fight. “…heaven was heaven still, as Milton sings, after Lucifer and a third part of the angels had seceded from its golden palaces,––and perhaps all the more heavenly, because so many gloomy brows, and soured, vindictive hearts, had gone to plot ineffectual schemes of mischief elsewhere.”

v     He also wrote a biography of Franklin Pierce, America’s 14th president, often considered the worst in US history. They were life-long friends. After Pierce became president, he gave Hawthorne a job as consul in Liverpool, England.

v     Herman Melville dedicated his novel, Moby Dick, to Hawthorne, “In token of my admiration for his genius.”

v     Even Edgar Allan Poe, who didn’t like Hawthorne’s work, called him, “…one of the few men of indisputable genius to whom our country has as yet given birth.”

Personal Life:

Nathaniel was the great-great-grandson of John Hathorne, the only judge of the Salem Witch Trials who didn’t repent from his judgment. Nathaniel added the ‘w’ in his last name to hide the relation, because he was embarrassed. His father, also Nathaniel, was a sea captain who died of yellow fever (Malaria), when young Nathaniel was four.

As a teen, studying away from home, he wrote his own newspaper, The Spectator, which he sent to his family. It included his news, essays, and poems. At 17 he started college at Bowdoin, and met the young Franklin Pierce at a stage stop, starting a lifelong friendship. He also met the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and, more importantly, a young woman named Sophia Peabody, with whom he fell in love.

Seeking a home for himself and Sophia, and hoping to save some money for a wedding, he joined the transcendentalist utopian community at Brook Farm in 1841. He was put in charge of shoveling the hill of manure referred to as “the Gold Mine”. His experience at Brook Farm was an inspiration for his novel The Blithedale Romance.

Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody in 1842. Hawthorne wrote that she “is, in the strictest sense, my sole companion; and I need no other—there is no vacancy in my mind, any more than in my heart... Thank God that I suffice for her boundless heart!” They had three children, Una, Julien, and Rose.

Nathaniel and Sophia moved to many different towns, and were at one point neighbors to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, and Herman Melville. When Pierce was elected, the Hawthornes moved to Liverpool, England, where Nathaniel was made consul. When Pierce’s term ended, Nathaniel lost his position. He and his family travelled around Europe, before heading home.

At the start of the Civil War, Nathaniel and his wife travelled to Washington and the frontlines to witness events. Nathaniel soon complained of stomach pains. As he grew ill, Nathaniel and Pierce took a trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He died in his sleep. At his funeral pallbearers included Longfellow, Emerson, Alcott, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.