This is a website in praise of the written word.
Writing was such an incredible discovery. And when the Phoenicians created an alphabet, literature was bound to take off. We have been learning about the psychological benefits of journaling for years. There is just something about writing. Talking, on the other hand, is quickly devoured by the very air through which it resonates. How many of us have returned from a meeting with the boss or a rendezvous with a beloved having wished we had not said one thing or had said another thing differently; we really wished we had written some things down in advance When ancient Roman poets practiced their love elegies, they started with wax tablets which could be erased easily and rewritten. Later, erasers were hit or miss in how much smear they left behind. Having found the perfect pen, words might flow faster than the fingers can keep pace with– then we simply crossed out the offending sections. Today, it is painless to highlight and delete, sometimes too easy– thank God for the Undo Edit buttons.
Reading the classics of the ancient Greek world, particularly those creations from 5th century BCE Athens, one cannot help but feel the orality within them. The vestiges of the oral tradition in Homer’s epics, the plays of the great tragedians written to be performed, or the instructional essays of Plato. When one reads, one almost feels he is practicing his declamation.
Sometime in the 3rd century BCE in Alexandria, the book was born. And more books. Until the first major library was born. The physicality of the writing became important and part of the author’s creative arsenal. By the time we get to 1st century BCE when Vergil wrote his Aeneid, we encounter words, phrases, and images that compel us to scroll back or forward (literally) to a similar use of that word, phrase, or image elsewhere in the text.
The 1st century CE poet Ovid went so far as to create illustrations from the arrangement of words in a line. Here he describes two arrows in Cupid’s quiver: a sharp, golden one that incites love; a dull, lead one that repels love.
quod facit, auratum est et cuspide fulget acuta,
quod fugat, obtusum est et habet sub harundine plumbum. (Metamorphoses 1.470-471)
Ovid shows them side by side as if in the quiver. The first five words of each line (i.e., the bottom of the arrows) mirror each other. They are different only at their tips. The one which makes love ends with the word acuta, sharp; the dull one which repels love ends in plumbum, lead.
Ovid was never afraid to let his genius show. He was perhaps the author most adept at the use of language until Shakespeare. He confessed that his father intended him to become an attorney, but that when he sat down to write, all that came out was verse.
The wonderful quality of good literature is how endlessly it may be interpreted, the way in which today’s reading of a text may not be the same tomorrow. Teaching literature is so exhilarating because so often students make discoveries we know we would never have found. I was teaching Horace’s Roman Ode 1 (Carmina 3.1) one particular afternoon. A typically reticent student demonstrated the manner in which Horace solidified his message that while kings hold authority over the common herd, they become part of this same crowd when compared with the gods.
Regum timendorum in proprios greges,
reges in ipsos imperium est Iovis (3.1.5-6)
The word for herds in line 5 (greges) is immediately followed by the word for kings (reges) in the next. Thus, there are reges in every greges. Simply profound.
Talking about literature makes us feel good about ourselves. We fancy ourselves literary detectives, and we are. Yes, writing is about communication; but as important, writing is about creativity. And like magic, every time a new reader picks up and reads an old book, that old book is written all over again by that new set of eyes working with that new mind. Writing is one of the greatest gifts a human can give a subject. Writing is one of the grandest gifts God has given us.