Reciting Latin Verse

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Edan Dekel, Classics

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2000

One of the great difficulties in teaching ancient languages like Latin is the general lack of a spoken component. Whereas modern language students can reinforce the grammatical material they learn in a book through oral drills and conversational practice, students of Latin are faced with the prospect of studying a complex, inflected language entirely through the written word. While students still manage to learn the grammar and vocabulary, they often lack an appreciation for Latin as a living, breathing means of communication. A sensitivity to the oral aspect of the language not only reinforces material learned through traditional means, but also opens a window into the sublime quality of Latin which can serve as motivation for further study.

With an eye towards the latter benefit especially, I have included an oral component in all my introductory Latin classes. This consists specifically of the study and practice of Latin poetic recitation. Midway through the semester, I offer a general introduction to Latin meter. This introduction includes a series of detailed handouts, a full class session of discussion and examples, and a set of practice exercises in determining the quantity of syllables and the metrical pattern of a given line. Shortly thereafter, I distribute the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid, which are some of the most famous examples of Latin verse. I specifically choose this passage because I want even the students who will never study Latin again to have some intimate knowledge of at least one small piece of ancient literature. The students are expected to practice reading the passage aloud in the correct metrical verse pattern and ultimately, to recite it from memory at the end of the semester.

The purpose of this exercise is twofold. First, by asking the students to wrestle with Latin in its most highly developed form at an early stage in their careers, I hope to encourage a passion for the language which is often difficult to instill through fabricated sentences or stories. Second, the process of carefully examining each word in a continuous passage and learning both the sound and the order of those words by heart, reinforces the essential elements of Latin phonology, morphology, and syntax.

The assignment is usually met with a mixture of enthusiasm and dread by the students. The amount of memorization which is already required to learn the language renders that aspect of the assignment relatively innocuous. However, the thought of reciting lines of verse in front of their classmates is a daunting prospect. In order to assuage these fears, I use extra class time at least once a week for practice, and I set up additional office hours for individual work on the meter. This provides yet another opportunity to encourage each student to pursue the study of Latin.

By the end of the semester, each student has thoroughly prepared the passage for recitation. While the meaning of the words influences every recitation, the most enthusiastic students spend extra time honing their readings to reflect the mood of the passage as well. On the designated day in the last week of class, the entire process comes to fruition as each student in turn brings the dulcet tones of Virgil to life two millennia after they were composed. The individual recitations are a learning experience for the whole class, because each performance reflects a unique interpretation of the poem and demonstrates how even a classical language can be personalized by a modern reader.