The Entrancing Way to Learn
On didactic epic and the mnemonic power of poetry.
In epic literature, there is warring on enemies and there is wandering around and having adventures but there is also teaching people stuff that keeps them safe and helps them prosper. This expressly educative kind of epic is called “didactic”—a very unfortunate adjective that connotes preachiness and tedium. No, no, no. The snakes in Nicander’s “Venomous Animals” dart, hiss and strike, and the birds in Aratus’ “Weather-Signs” take flight, flutter and glide as a flock or solo in a dance-like manner evocative of Disney’s “Fantasia.”
Whereas the reader views the events of the “Iliad,” say, or “Odyssey” from an impersonal distance, as if they were on a movie screen, didactic epics address “you” the person experiencing the poem either directly or in the guise of a character who needs advice: Perses, Hesiod’s good-for-nothing brother in “Works and Days,” for example, or Arjuna in the “Bhagavad Gita.” You are there in the present of the poem, and someone with useful knowledge, usually the poet, is your companion. The voice frequently uses imperatives and exhortations to tell you what to do, as in these lines from the beginning of the fourth book of Virgil’s “Georgics” on beekeeping:
First find your bees a stable place, a spot the wind
can’t reach (wind hampers them from hauling forage home)
and where no sheep and rowdy kids mash all the flowers
and where no wandering heifer dashes dew off turf
and tramples grasses better left to grow. Make sure
you keep the brightly dappled, plate-backed lizard far
away from their prolific hives, and the bee-eater,
and other birds like Procne flourishing a breast
stained red with blood shed by her own ferocious hands.
As the advice moves systematically through things that bother bees (wind, sheep, goats and cattle) and things that eat bees (lizards and birds), it opens vivid vignettes, little scenes and situations. Then, as a climax, mention of Procne, a swallow with a red breast, opens out into mythic backstory in which she, as the human wife of Tereus, sheds blood while killing their son with her “hands” (not wings). She is a killer of people and bees. Later in the book, the instruction expands out of the hortatory mode into a longer scene in which you get to watch colonies of bees wage war on each other and a story in which the hero Aristaeus goes on a quest to recover the bees he lost. As I see it, didactic epics provide instruction that is enhanced by virtue of being elastic, animated and at times immersive. I greatly prefer them to textbooks.
One of the advantages that didactic epic has over other modes of instruction is the mnemonic power of poetry—it wants to stick in memory. The minds of those familiar with dactylic hexameter, the meter of Ancient Greek and Latin didactic epic, more readily remember information presented in that meter than in unmetered prose. The form comes with set rhythmic expectations which facilitate mental reconstruction of words, phrases and lines originally encountered in it.
Poetic form is overtly an aide-mémoire in Indian epic, in which the didactic “Bhagavad Gita” appears. The thirty-two syllables that make up a shloka (verse) are presented as two lines of sixteen syllables. These lines are further subdivided into two octosyllabic padas standing on either side of a caesura. Thus, a shloka consists of four padas which are “modular” units that can be easily quoted and contemplated outside of their surrounding context. This subdividable structure enacts a pedagogical method called “chunking:” breaking up learning material into manageable and readily digestible units. A person, for example, much more quickly memorizes a string of twelve random numbers by breaking it down into three groups of four.
Students are often expected to commit lists of terms or names to memory, and I have found listed material much easier to remember when it is in verse. Here is an example in English that uses not just rhythm but rhyme to make information stick in the mind:
Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November. . .
Yes, the months are out of order to make the rhyme work, but this couplet has been in my mind for consultation since middle school. It serves its purpose very well. In the “Praises of Italy” passage in “Georgics,” Virgil lists the names of the great families of Roman history, and those lines, both their content and their sonorousness, have stayed with me since my early 20s. Sometimes, in fact, the sounds of the words for listed things take over, as when Hesiod in “Theogony” inventories, by their mostly quite beautiful names, forty-one aquatic daughters of Ocean in a row.
Didactic epic with its proximity to the reader, its animation and its very human approach to learning has delighted me since undergraduate school. I have now written my own book-length didactic poem, “Central Park,” which immerses “you,” a friend of the speaker, in the flora, fauna, landscape and history of the Park on four walking tours through space and time. The first of the “cuttings” presented here recounts the revelatory experience in the Park that inspired the poem; the second walks you through the three worlds of the Conservatory Garden. Though I love talking about other people's poetry, it would be sacrilegious for me to try to analyze or explicate my own. All I can say is: I hope you like them.
(You can read the author's "Two Cuttings from Central Park" here.)
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