Teaching Latin poems without giving much thought to their metrical structure is a bit like teaching Haikus in paragraph form. Haikus are short and simple, though. If you’re only interested in a Haiku’s content, topic, or message, you could skip the 3 by 5-7-5 structure and students would read a few lines just fine. It’s still a bit silly, but there’s not much getting in the way. Then there’s Latin. If you’re only interested in a Latin poem’s content, topic, or message, its form is unnecessarily obtuse for the reader if you have no intention of really looking at the meter.
Timothy Moore’s article, “Don’t Skip the Meter! Introducing Students to the Music of Roman Comedy” (Classical Journal, 2013), has a clear message, right from the title. For years, I’ve felt the same way. It’s not breaking news that I began writing novellas in 2016 under a similar premise. Considering most Latin students drop after the second year, very few of them ever experience poetry typically read in years three or four. Therefore, my first book shared a glimpse into what Latin poetry has to offer beginning students. I didn’t fully realize that personal poetic pursuit until last year when I unabashedly unleashed 270 lines of poetry straight—no chaser—in ecce, poēmata discipulīs! With facing English, poetry is now available to all Latin students…
As a form, it’s the meter that defines Latin poetry. Of course, any teacher who’s tried to write Latin poetry understands this well. N.B. I’m not positive that all readers of Latin poetry do understand this. From what I’ve seen, and what Timothy wrote, meter is frequently overlooked in the classroom besides those obligatory lessons on scansion and an occasional attempt at some recitation. Latin poetry writers quickly discover what little they might know about elisions, long and short syllables, and word accents (re: “oh, thaaaaaaaat’s why people use macrons”), and cannot overlook what so many others get away with when only sometimes drudging through dactyls. Anyway, I’m here to encourage something unexpected:
Don’t teach Latin poetry.
That is, don’t bother with original, unadapted dactyls if you have no intention of spending time reciting spondees aloud. Forget an author’s own words unless you discuss why their place within a line called for their use (vs. any other equally awesome word choice). Let go of positing whether one word was invented for an effect in the line, or because the structure called for syllables that only a deponent verb would allow. What to do instead?
Stick with adapted prose versions.
Of course, many Latin teachers will decry the suggestion, claiming wanting to “stay as true to the original” and stick with the highly-promoted “authentic texts,” reading the “authors’ words as they wrote them,” or something along those lines. To that, I’d point out that by skipping meter, we’re no farther from the original than reading an adapted prose version. The benefit of the latter? Students have a higher chance of understanding the content, topic, or message, and time won’t be wasted on lip-service scansion lessons. To be clear, this is a pedagogical suggestion, having watched students (and teachers) deal with dactyls and struggle with spondees for years. It doesn’t have to be this way. You’ve got three options, all of which to take advantage of:
- Give students poetry they can understand and maybe build skills to enjoy the form of poetry for what it is.
- Do *some* close reading of ancient texts with full attention to meter.
- Skip the meter and find (create?) an adapted version of these works of art that gets the same content, topic, or message.
After all, there’s no service being done by ignoring the defining feature of Latin poetry. We wouldn’t teach a Haiku that way. Why do it with a Latin poem?