Letter to a Teacher of English: James B. Munn

YOUR learning, James, in classics and romance,
Sits lightlier than most men’s ignorance;
But often do I see in our profession
Learning a mere extraneous possession,
An undigested mass of dates and sources
Roll’d round in academe’s diurnal courses,
Where scholars prepare scholars, not for life,
But gaudy footnotes and a threadbare wife, —
Keen eyes for errors in a worthless text,
But none at all for this world or the next.
Your modesty, that even tops your learning,
Forbids what I would say of you, so turning
Not, as I hope, from Ghibelline to Guelph,
I will discuss, as is the vogue, myself.
I fall between two stools — I can’t say Chairs —
A bard too learn’d, a scholar in arrears.
The critical reviewers, week by week,
Damn poets who command their own technique.
Professor is a title that to them
Begins in laughter and concludes in phlegm.
A careful rhyme, a spondee nobly planned
Is academic, and the work unmanned.
Would that these critics lived in houses fashioned
By carpenters congenially impassioned.
I’d love to see the rooftree fall on . . . no,
The name is Legion; let us leave it so.
But as a teacher I have equal luck, —
In ponds a chicken and on shore a duck.
My wretched memory, for all my pains,
Drops tons for every ounce that it retains;
Far wiser now, I have less factual knowledge
At forty-one than when I was in college. . . .
Yet there is recompense for knowing well
One language, if it be incomparable.
Disdainful, the Athenian would speak
No other language than his native Greek. Now his provincial literature is prized
In every barbarous tongue that he despised.
The learned Roman, who knew Greek by heart,
Had twice the scholarship, and half the art.
The great Elizabethans’ education
Thrived less on lore than on superb translation.
Our scholars, to whom every root is known,
Command all languages, except their own.
For confirmation, but consult the theses
That year by year bankrupt the college presses.
When poets go, grammarians arrive.
Is Virgil dead? Let commentators thrive.
The gift of tongues without the Holy Ghost
Becomes a Babel, not a Pentecost.
In short, dear James, by now you plainly see
I find no virtue in philology;
At best a sterile hobby, often worse,
The plumes, when language dies, upon its hearse. . . .
Now, James, I stop complaining, I will plan
An education to produce a man.
Make no mistake, I do not want this done, —
My limitations are the cornerstone.
Plato’s Republic may have served some use
In manuscript, but not in Syracuse,
So let my dream Academy remain
A dream; — I’m sure I do not ask in vain.
First would I have my scholar learn the tongue
He never learned to speak when he was young;
Then would I have him read therein, but merely
In the great books, to understand them clearly.
O that our living literature could be
Our sustenance, not archæology!
Time is the wisest judge, who folds away
The surplus of a too-abundant day.
My scholar shall be brilliantly forbidden
To dig old garbage from a kitchen midden.
Far better Alexandria in flames
Than buried beneath unimportant names,
And even Sappho, glory that was Greece’s,
Lives best, I blasphemously think, in pieces.
Surely our sprite, who over Amherst hovered,
Would gain if no more poems were discovered.
That Chinese emperor who burned the books
Succumbed to madness shrewder than it looks;
The minor poets and the minor sages
Went up in smoke; the great shine down the ages.
The Harvard Library’s ungainly porch
Has often made me hunger for a torch,
But this not more to simplify a lecture
Than to appease the Muse of architecture.
When music and sweet poetry agree,
Who would be thinking of a Ph.D.?
O who would ablauts bear, when Brahms’s First
Is soon to be performed or but rehearsed?
My scholar must have music in his heart,
Bach and Beethoven, Schumann and Mozart,
Franck and Sibelius, and more like these,
Their works, if not their names, sweet symphonies.
Ah, James, I missed my calling; I would turn
To that one art toward which the others yearn, —
But I observe my neighbor’s cow, who leaves
Her fertile pasture for my barren sheaves.
The field next door, the next-door art, will thus
Always attract the mildly covetous.
Yet some day I will play you the main theme
Of the immortal counterpoint I dream:
Clear melody in fugue and canon rises
On strings, with many structural surprises.
No letter, but a prelude, for your sake
I would compose beside this tranquil lake.
Its line should rise toward heaven until it broke
Halfway between the sky and the great oak;
Then waver, like a flock of homing birds,
In slow descending flights of minor thirds.
Music alone can set the spirit free
From the dark past and darker things to be.
Could Man be judged by music, then the Lord
Would quench the angel of the flaming sword.
Alas, the final tones so soon disperse
Their echoes through the empty universe,
And hearers, weak from following Beethoven,
Relax with Gershwin, Herbert, and de Koven.
But to return to Polyhymnia,
And incidentally to my student. Ah,
Where is the creature? No, but is that he?
A saxophone is nuzzling on his knee!
His eyes pop out, his bellied cheeks expand,
His foot taps ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’
Ungraceful and unpardonable wretch!
Was it for you my eager pen would sketch
A new, a sensible curriculum?
Burst with your Panpipes! and we’ll both be dumb.
I was about to urge philosophy,
Especially the Greek, I was to be
Your godfather in recommending Faith
To you, fit godson for a Sigmund Spaeth!
Of history and time I was to tell,
Things visible and things invisible,
But what to you are echoes from Nicea,
Who never prayed nor cherished an idea?
And what have you to gain from education,
Blown bellows for unceasing syncopation?
Learning and life are too far wrenched apart,
I cannot reconcile, for all my art,
Studies that go one way and life another,
Tastes that demoralize, and tests that smother.
James, what is this I find ? an angry scowl
Sits on my brow like a Palladian owl!
Let me erase it, lest it should transform
The soft horizon with a thunderstorm.
I would you were beside me now, to share
The sound of falling water, the sweet air.
Under the yew a vacant easy chair
Awaits your coming; and long-planted seeds
Begin to bloom amid the encircling weeds.
I bade my student an abrupt adieu
But find it harder to take leave of you.
May we not some day have a mild carouse
In Pontefract instead of Warren House?
The distance nothing, — in two hours’ time
Another land where that word’s but a rhyme.
Would I were Marvell, then you could not harden
Your heart against a visit to my garden.
I ’d write those happy lines about the green
Annihilation, and you’d soon be seen
Hatless and coatless, bootless, — well, my soul!
He’s in the lake with nothing on at all!
To sink, to swim, that is the only question:
Thus ends my treatise on — was it digestion?
Farewell, and yours sincerely, and yours ever,
The time has come for the initial shiver.
When into lakes, as into life, we dive,
We’re fortunate if we come up alive.