Things I have learned from students who have taken my seminars in Comparative Literature, Part 1

2021.12.27 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. As an old teacher, I have often tried to encourage young colleagues who are launching their careers in teaching. I would be telling them stories about what could be described as “eureka moments” to be experienced in the process of teaching. But the Greek word “eureka” (ηὕρηκα), meaning literally ‘I have found,’ in the sense of “I have figured it out,” does not really capture the fullness of the experience. It is not that “I have just figured out something.” Rather, we teachers can figure things out together with our students. What I am saying here can apply even to those would-be teachers who aspire to be primarily researchers. To put it in the form of an aphorism: not only does good research drive good teaching, but good teaching drives good research. That said, I should add that the title of my essay here, which is the first in a planned series of further such essays, reflects an extension in my thinking: I would now say “good learning,” not simply “good teaching,” since good learning surely applies to teachers as well as to students. A prime example in my own lengthy academic life is my learning experience—or I should say experiences—in the context of a series of seminars I have been offering over the years in the Comparative Literature Department of Harvard University. My essay here is Part 1 of a corresponding series of essays about these experiences in interacting with students in my seminars. And I start, here in Part 1, by focusing on my most recent such seminar, “Songmaking and the Idea of Lyric.” That is exactly what this seminar was called in Harvard University’s Catalogue of Courses offered in 2021/2022:

COMPLIT 156: Songmaking and the Idea of Lyric
Harvard College/Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: 212724
Term: 2021 Fall / Full Term
Course Instructor(s): Gregory Nagy
Location: Boylston 203 (FAS)

Course Description:
A re-examination of “Lyric” as occasion as well as genre. Central questions to be explored will include: how do the “lyrics” of composed song come alive in performance? For example, how do the two librettists of Puccini’s opera La Bohème contribute to the making of a masterpiece in song? Shared readings include The Lyric Theory Reader: A Critical Anthology, edited by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins [subtitle: Reading lyric poetry over the past century] Baltimore 2014]. Students are free to select as their focus of research any particular “lyric” traditions, composed in whatever language. No previous knowledge of literary theory is presumed.

Collage: Sappho, Taylor Swift, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Hula dancer, Man by Nicias Painter via Wikimedia Commons.

End of description. And now, here at the very start of my essay, I add just one most relevant comment about the announced title of the course. In this comment, I highlight the fact that the Greek word “idea” (ἰδέα), for the likes of Plato and beyond, was synonymous with the idea of what students of literature today would call “genre.” With this comment in place, I now launch into my essay, which is merely a sketch, about the many things I learned from the students who “took” my seminar on the “idea” of Lyric.

§1. There were fifteen students enrolled in “Songmaking and the Idea of Lyric.” As I look back on my truly unforgettable life-experience in interacting with each one of these students weekly for almost three whole months this past fall, I am still dazzled—even now that it’s all over (at least, it’s “officially” all over)—by the sheer variety of their luminous contributions not only to my own experience but also, far more important, to each other’s experiences in their own interactions with each other as well as with me. What I will offer here, then, is my sketch, however inadequate, of their contributions.

§2. Before I get to the sketch, however, I must take note of two additional contributors to the seminar. One of the two was my music teacher—that is how I playfully introduced her to the class at our first meeting. She is Martha Lynn Cowan, known to friends as Mella. I happen to be one of Mella’s less distinguished “music students,” but I try to make up for my slowness in learning music by concentrating on my other role: I am a passionate admirer of the music that Mella herself makes. And let me add to that my admiration for her as my genial sister-in-law. As for the second of the two additional contributors to the seminar, her name is Elizabeth Gipson. Elizabeth is a PhD student in the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard—and she is working concurrently as my research assistant. Not coincidentally, Elizabeth is also an assistant editor for Classical Continuum; we see her name in the listing of the Editorial Team, here. Elizabeth’s contributions to the intellectual and creative momentum of the seminar established her, in the eyes of all seventeen of us others, as the de facto Teaching Fellow of our seminar. That said, I have reached the point where I can start telling about the momentum of the fifteen students as they commenced their engagement with “Lyric.”

§3. To “get the ball rolling” at the first meeting in the first week, I started by introducing our group to one of my own special research interests, centering on the song-making of Sappho. At first I was talking as a classicist would talk—and here I use the term “classicist” in the narrower sense of referring to a specialist in the study of Greco-Roman civilization(s). A fitting symbol for this initial démarche of mine is the picturing of Sappho by Raphael in his grand view of canonical poets who have attained their lofty goal of enshrinement on top of Mount Parnassus:

Cropped image of Sappho from Raphael’s Parnassus. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

But then the conversation in the seminar turned to my role as a comparatist, and now the ball really started rolling, since the students enrolled in what was after all a Comparative Literature seminar started taking the initiative of getting engaged with the procedures and challenges of comparative approaches. And the ball kept on rolling.

§4. What had triggered the conversation about comparative approaches was the moment when I cited for our group some relevant remarks about my research, on Sappho’s poetics, in the influential book of Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge MA 2015), p. 356n1, where he comments on the use of a Greek word in a song of Sappho. In this regard, Culler cites my translation and interpretation of this word as presented in my book Poetry as Performance (Nagy 1996:100, going back to Nagy 1973:142n18). The word in question here is dēute (δηὖτε), used at lines 15 and 16 and 18 in Song 1 of Sappho, and I translate this word as ‘once again this time’. In my interpretation, this word refers not only to some episodically recurrent emotion of love as experienced by the “I” of the singer but also to the seasonally recurrent performance of the song on festive occasions that I reconstruct back to the earliest attested phases of the song’s evolution.

§5. At that same initial meeting of the seminar, I went on to share with our group, en passant, an essay of mine in Classical Inquiries (2015.11.05), where I connected my interpretation of Sappho’s Song 1 with the overall theories of Jonathan Culler in his role as a leading comparatist in the study of “lyric”—but without yet delving into questions of genre. And my emphasis on comparative approaches, with specific reference to the performing and the reperforming of song, led to my surveying, in the broadest possible terms, my own comparative approaches to “lyric” as “song” in general and to the composing of “lyrics” in the sense of “words that go with songs in particular.” Such “lyrics,” as the wordings that “go” with songs, are technically the libretti, and I cited in this context an essay of mine, published again in Classical Inquiries (Nagy 2018.11.16), about the librettists of Puccini’s La Bohème.

§6. In the weeks that followed, our group kept delving into questions of Lyric as a “genre,” with a strong emphasis on historical contexts of performance and reperformance. Our collective approach was steadfastly comparative—and cross-cultural. What eventuated from the intense in-person conversations “in class” were fifteen research projects, featuring creative compositions as well as essays or explications, and the projects were all “handed in” on time in order to meet the academic requirements of the seminar (the mutually agreed-upon deadline was December 17).

§7. What follows, then, is a list of each title given by each student to the work they submitted as a culmination, to-date, of their ongoing research projects. My hope is that each creator of each project will in the course of time (no deadlines) “annotate” what I report here about their work. For the idea behind “annotation,” which is a term I intend to use in an academic sense, I refer to an essay of mine that is posted in Classical Continuum (Nagy 2021.10.26). Once any given annotation is submitted and processed by a designated team of editors who will be a subset of the Editorial Team for Classical Continuum, the annotator’s name, if permission is granted by the annotator, can be made public. Before permission is granted by annotators, their name will remain private. And what do I mean when I say that the annotator’s name can be “made public,” once permission is given by the annotator? I mean simply this: by making public their names, the annotators are literally publishing their annotations. In other words, what the annotator has submitted can then be published as an annotation that is added to the content of my essay here, at whatever point is chosen by the editors as most relevant to the overall conversation. The annotation can then appear in the margin next to such a point in the text of the overall essay. I hereby suggest, in my role as the author of §§0–7 in this posting of Classical Continuum, a leader for the team of editors to whom annotations can be submitted. I name, not surprisingly, the honorary “Head TF” of our seminar, Elizabeth Gipson.

A working list of projects submitted by students in the seminar “Songmaking and the Idea of Lyric,” fall 2021

“The idea of Lyric, an overall assessment,” by X.
GN comments…The author’s point of departure is a formulation in the book edited by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins. Her essay includes a self-performed version of her essay, via YouTube.

“The idea of Lyric, interviews and assessments,” by X.
GN comments…This essay analyzes the complexities involved in coming to terms with the term “Lyric”/ “lyrics’ in both academic and non-academic cultures.

“The idea of Lyric and Songmaking-by-X.”
GN comments… In this case, “X” is the songmaker himself.

“Once Again This Time: Sappho in Taylor Swift,” by X.
GN comments… A tour de force in comparing the self-personification of a “classical” diva with a charismatic analogue in modern popular song culture.

“Biblical Poetic Devices in Two Israeli Love Songs,” by X.
GN comments… An insightful comparison of the “classical” with the “modern.”

“The Evolution of Hula and its Effects on Storytelling in the Hawaiian Culture,” by X.
GN comments… This analysis helps me augment my own formulations about dance as a motor activity that can be analyzed linguistically.

“Cross thy Heart: words by John Donne, music, by X.”
GN comments… This composition is a most creative experiment in finding music to accompany the poem.

“Mimetic Expressions and Onomatopoeia in Korean Pansori,” by X.
GN comments… This essay adds a new dimension to Roman Jakobson’s ideas about the iconic function of language.

“An Analysis of Mahler’s Augmentation of Lyrical Meaning with Symphonic Choral Music,” by X.
GN comments… A deep probe into the profundities of music without words.

“Digital Love Remix,” by X.
GN comments… A deft analysis of a reperformance from popular song culture, situated in an academic context.

“To Sing, or Not to Sing? An Exploration of Communication in Musical and Non-Musical Performance,” by X.
GN comments… An insightful exercise in reperforming a song by literally acting it.

“Mustitching: Improvised Music and Plot in Sixteenth-Century Commedia Pastorale (Pastoral Comedies),” by X.
GN comments… In her close analysis of a premodern genre, the author expertly applies her comparative insights about fabric work viewed cross-culturally.

“Self Discovery and Identity Through Poetry by Edith Södergran,” by X.
GN comments… An inventive study of crossing languages in the making of poetry by a self-modeled “New Woman.”

“Reflection and Methodology on the Final Project: Setting Lyric to Setting,” by X.
GN comments… As the creator of this work says it, and most engagingly so, “There is an audiovisual soundscape, a write-up to go along with the creative piece, and an image of what I did inside of the software to create the work.”

“Creating a song about creation, by X.”
GN comments… An exploration of creation as a process shaped by the desire to create – as exemplified in this case by the creation itself.


Calame, C. 2016.01.18. “« Eros à nouveau maintenant » et la pragmatique mélique: note à G. Nagy, ‘Once again this time in Song 1 of Sappho’.” Classical Inquiries.

Culler, J. 2015. Theory of the Lyric. Cambridge MA.

Nagy, G. 1973. “Phaethon, Sappho’s Phaon, and the White Rock of Leukas.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77:137–177. Recast as Chapter 9 in Nagy 1990:223–262.

Nagy, G. 1990. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca NY.

Nagy, G. 1996. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge.

Nagy, G. 2007. “Did Sappho and Alcaeus Ever Meet?” Literatur und Religion: Wege zu einer mythisch–rituellen Poetik bei den Griechen I (ed. A. Bierl, R. Lämmle, and K. Wesselmann) 211–269. MythosEikonPoiesis 1.1. Berlin and New York. In Nagy 2012 v2.

Nagy, G. 2010. “The ‘New Sappho’ Reconsidered in the Light of the Athenian Reception of Sappho.” The New Sappho on Old Age: Textual and Philosophical Issues (ed. E. Greene and M. Skinner) 176–199. Cambridge MA and Washington DC.

Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge MA.

Nagy, G. 2015.11.05. “Once again this time in Song 1 of Sappho.” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2018.11.16. “Two librettists, unsung heroes of Puccini’s La Bohème.” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2021.10.26. “About online annotation as an academic genre designed to track ongoing research.” Classical Continuum.

Leave a Reply