Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Classics in Pop Culture, Part III

Classics in Pop Culture, Part III

In a recent post I discussed how to effectively include pop culture in a classics course by suggesting teachers send their students on a "scavenger hunt" to find songs containing lyrics or titles in Latin and/or Greek. I followed this suggestion with another post, proposing to have students translate some of their favorite songs into Latin or Greek, going as far as composing their own music to the reworked lyrics. I also posited the idea of reworking pop songs with lyrics relevant to themes from classics history and culture. In this post, the third and final of the series, I offer an idea for a classroom project that will get students thinking of pop culture as it relates to classics. The project is one I actually did when I was a student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and taking an introduction to Latin poetry class with Professor Elizabeth Keitel.
This bust of Catullus, a 1st
century BCE poet, rests in the
Piazza Carducci in Sirmione

The task is for students to find a song and to make an argument that the songwriter drew influences from classical literature. The goal is to find stylistic similarities, as well as similarities in diction and tone, or anywhere else. This will not only give the student further understanding of the ancient author's own choices and use of poetic and rhetorical devices, but it will additionally yield an understanding of the relevance of classical studies. (This project can also be done with contemporary poetry, but I found it most effective, and more enjoyable, when done with music.) This is how I would do it with a musician in a class covering the poetry of Catullus (translations come from Henry V. Bender and Phyllis Young Forsyth's Catullus: Expanded Edition: Teacher's Guide):

First, I would start with playing an excerpt, or the whole song depending on the allotted time, of Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," having distributed a copy of the lyrics to the class so that they may read along. Once the music had finished, I would make my case.

"You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome
When You Go" is the fifth track off of
Bob Dylan's 1975 album Blood
on the Tracks.
In Catullus 7 the poet, when presented with the question of how many kisses would be enough for him, writes quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae...aut quam sidera multa "as great as the quantity of sand in the Libyan desert...or as many as are the stars" (3, 7). This same juxtaposition of ideas, of the high and the low, appears in Dylan as he sings, "Dragon clouds so high above/I've only known careless love/It's always hit me from below," or again when he sings, "I'll see you in the sky above/In the tall grass." In these same excerpts is a clear attention to nature; Catullus points to the sand and the stars, Dylan to the clouds and the grass.

Additionally, in the same poem Catullus references geography and sites that would be familiar to his Mediterranean audience, such as Libyssae (3), Cyrenis (4), and Batti verteris sacrum sepulcrum "the sacred tomb of old Battus" (6). Likewise, Dylan makes mention of cities familiar to his American audience: "I'll look for you in old Honolulu/San Francisco, Ashtabula." In Catullus 2B and 3, the poet makes repeated references to mythological characters and tales, again recalling scenes familiar to his audience; Dylan repeats this with his reference to the tempestuous love affair of Verlaine and Rimbaud.

Catullus's use of polyptoton and alliteration at the end of 8 adds a certain harshness to the conclusion of his relationship: Quae tibi manet vita?/Quis nunc te adibit? cui videberis bella?/quem nunc amabis? "What life waits for you? Who now will come to you? To whom will you appear beautiful? Whom will you now love?" (8.15–17). This same harsh sound shows up in Dylan, building up to the thought of him crying: "Purple clover, Queen Anne's Lace/Crimson hair around your face/You could make me cry if you don't know."

In Catullus 5, Catullus makes a plea to his lover: Da mi basia mille, deinde centum,/dein mille altera, dein secunda centum "Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, then another thousand, then a second hundred" (5.7–8). Dylan's lyrics parallel this plea with remarks such as "You might be spoiling me too much love." 

Lastly, even the refrain, "Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go," and the acknowledgement that the love Dylan has will come to an end recalls Catullus's idea that nox est perpetua una dormienda "there is one never-ending night for sleeping" (5.6), though not as somberly, or the idea, quod vides perisse peditum ducas "consider as lost what you see as perished" (8.2), though not as austerely.

Through similar devices such as juxtaposition and alliteration, through use of geological and cultural scenes familiar to their audiences, and through parallel ideas such as too much love, one can make the case that Dylan had Catullus in mind as he wrote this song.

Students should be graded on the strength of their argument as much as their ability to answer any questions at the conclusion of their presentation. Additionally, the students should be able to demonstrate mastery over the Latin or Greek text and the ancient author's style and diction. This should be stress-free as much as it should be educational and, above all else, fun!

-Connor Hart

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