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The Scarlet & Black

No odyssey lost: Cheney speaks on Homer and Milton

Pat Cheney is a distinguished and widely published professor of renaissance literature at Pennsylvania State University.

Dr. Cheney takes a dapper moment before beginning his Wednesday lecture on the intersection of Homer and Milton. Photograph by Sophie Fajardo.

What is, as you said in your presentation, the value of seeing old texts with new eyes?

I would propose that the poems, plays and prose works that I study form a comprehensive reservoir of knowledge and wisdom, ideas and representations of what is important to the human. The writers that I teach and work on—Homer to Milton, people like Shakespeare, Spenser, Virgil, Dante—these are the premier authors of the Western canon. They are deep reservoirs for thinking, for ideas on identity. And I really do think that literature forms a kind of command center for modern identity. By studying a writer like Shakespeare, you get ideas about how to lead your life, about how to interact with people, about how to live in society.

What books or authors would you define as essential reading for everyone?

If I were stuck on a desert island, I’d want two books with me—the Hebrew and Christian Bible on one hand, or the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” on the other. I think that those two sets of work are the foundation of the Western literary tradition. Other essential authors for me in classical culture are obviously Virgil and Ovid. In Medieval culture, Dante and Chaucer would certainly make my shortlist. And in the Renaissance, Petrarch, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton are certainly major authors that I think that students should read as their foundation for their education, at least in English literature.

You’ve been a part of writing 17 books in as many years. How do you do so much writing? Do you have any advice for students?

More interesting about that statistic is that it is confined to the last 17 years—I’ve actually been working in the profession for 32 years. I spent the early years of my career working very hard to learn my craft and my trade, my profession. I still work seven [days a week], I don’t necessarily put in the 12-hour days anymore, but what is important is that I’ve worked very consistently for a long time. If you get in the habit of writing, as I did as a young person, writing becomes what you do, it becomes who you are. I love to write, it excites me the most, it gives me the biggest thrill. So there’s a couple of things: one is the discipline you establish as a young writer, but also, you have to enjoy doing this. That combination of discipline and care has allowed me to continue to enjoy doing in my early sixties what I enjoyed doing in my early twenties. A third element is consistency—I think you’d be surprised at what can emerge over a 30-year period.

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