Are you really saying that they mistaught me—not just in one but in two courses in 11th grade?

They taught it once. They taught it twice. They taught it thrice.

So, in the well-known (or perhaps no longer so well known) words of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (definitely better known as Lewis Carroll), it must be true:

“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”

from “The Hunting of the Snark”

Or maybe it’s not true.

Always pay attention to what Peter Gainsford has to say. In this case, the key passage is this:

Were you taught that the hexameter is a line consisting of six feet, each of which is either a dactyl or a spondee? If so, that was … well, it wasn’t wrong, not in the sense of being an actual falsehood. But it certainly gave you the wrong mental model.

Maybe you’re scratching your head at this point. If you never read Vergil in the original Latin, or Homer in the original Greek, it’s your loss, and scratching your head may be the appropriate response. In 11th grade I happened to be taking both Latin 4 and Greek 3, which primarily emphasized Vergil and Homer respectively. Learning about the meter was a major plus in my book, since it brought a mathematical aspect to the study of classical languages, providing an overlap in my two principal academic interests.

Gainsford goes on to explain what’s wrong with the traditional analysis—and Drs. Chase and Gillingham, my Latin 4 and Greek 3 teachers, were nothing if not traditional. In Gainsford’s words:

Yes, it’s true that ‘hexameter’ means ‘a line of six feet’ (hex- ‘six’), and ‘dactylic’ means it’s got a dum-diddy rhythm. That’s the literal meaning of the name.

They’re real words. But they’re the wrong words.

They create a mental model of ‘a sausage-string of dactyls’, as M. L. West put it fifty years ago (1973: 188). It’s a weirdly inorganic, artificial way of thinking of the hexameter. In reality it’s a very organic structure. It’s built out of phrases, not feet.

There’s really no point in my going on quoting Gainsford. Just read his piece—at least Part One and maybe also Part Two—if you have any interest in classical languages, poetry, math, or rhythm. Clearly the answer to the question in my title deserves an affirmative answer; I may not have been taught an “actual falsehood,” but I now know that I was taught the “wrong mental model.”

Categories: Teaching & Learning