A few days ago I received the news that a professor of mine had passed away suddenly. I hadn't seen or talked to him in a few years, but he played a large role in my academic career and I felt especially saddened at his passing. When I was an undergrad, I applied to go on study abroad to London. Three of my dearest friends went along with me and that semester remains one of the highlights of my life. We had, quite simply, the time of our lives. I've been an Anglophile for as long as I can remember and being able to walk where so many of my literary idols walked and visit their homes and haunts and graves changed me in a way that it is still difficult to describe.
Dr. Hatch was the assistant director of our group and in his early thirties at the time. He brought along with him his wife and three young children and all of us rambunctious college students had a blast living with the directors and their families in the wonderful old Victorian townhouse known to us as "the London Center." Two other professors instructed us in ancient civilization, European economics, and history, but Dr. Hatch's province was English literature. And as I, like Helene Hanff, had come to see the England of English literature it was his classes that had the largest effect on me during the months we lived and breathed there. I remember reading the entire play of Hamlet aloud in his class and then attending a live production at the Globe. I remember reading Wuthering Heights and The Hound of the Baskervilles along with Wordsworth, Keats, Austen, Scott, and a whole host of others. But one particular unit stands out in my mind.
We were working our way through the seventeenth century poets and had been assigned to read several poems by Ben Jonson. You may have heard of him. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare and was known for his criticism and acerbic wit. Though perhaps he is most famous for his praise of Shakespeare, "He was not of an age, but for all time!" Personally, I was not enchanted with Mr. Jonson's work. But the next day at the end of class, Dr. Hatch closed by reading us the poem Jonson wrote on his first son's death at the age of seven. It reads:On My First Son
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scaped world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age!
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
His voice caught as he uttered the line, "Here doth lie Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry." And my eyes filled with tears as he struggled to regain his composure to finish the last two lines. It was one of the most clear and beautiful moments of my life. There in that classroom in a house off of Notting Hill Gate, I felt as though my professor was channeling the man who had written those words close to 400 years ago as he lost his boy--his first child. It was astounding and it has stuck with me ever since.
Shortly after that day, we went as a group to tour Westminster Abbey. Dr. Hatch had told us of Poets' Corner and mentioned that Ben Jonson was buried there along with so many other literary luminaries. I was anxious to see the contradictory rascal's resting place and stopped dead in my tracks when I saw what was carved on his tombstone.
When Dr. Hatch later assigned us to write an Elizabethan sonnet on a topic of our choice, the emotions that had been rolling through me for the past while came to the forefront of my mind, and I found all that early ire wiped away by a single verse. Here's the sonnet I wrote (mind you, this was my first attempt at the form):
"O Rare Ben Jonson!" the gravestone read,
My wandering footsteps their pace did halt.
The corner famous for poets long dead
Held him whom I sought in all of the vault.
"Ben Jonson," I said, "you scoundrel, you!
How did you secure this hallowed shrine?
Outspoken rival and harsh critic too--
Not for you surely, this reverent line!"
Suddenly in my mind thy lines I heard,
Penned for thy son in language of such
Anguish of hindsight and loss endured,
Though skeptical I felt thy poignant touch.
'O Rare Ben' indeed, poet without peers,
Thy immortal words have moved me to tears.
When he handed me back my paper, Dr. Hatch was shaking his head and I became filled with fear that this exacting and dedicated man would tell me it was rubbish and I had profaned an entire art form with my mediocre fumbling. But there was an A written in broad red ink on the top of the sheet and my eyes shot back up to his face in confusion. "You understood," he said quietly. I smiled back at him in relief. "So did you," I said back.
Later, he wrote me a letter of recommendation for graduate school (in English literature, of course) and got me my job teaching composition. I'm grateful to him for so many things. But most of all I'm grateful to him for breathing life into a long-dead and oft-overlooked poet who had something to tell me, who has spoken to me ever since. I'll miss you, Dr. Hatch. As was read at your funeral, if, as Jorge Luis Borges imagined, Paradise is a kind of library, I'm sure they've saved a comfortable spot for you.
Sorry for your loss. Sounds like a lovely teacher and lots of fond memories learning from him.ReplyDelete
P.S. So they misspelled Jonson's name on his gravestone? Or was it pretty loose whether the spelling was Johnson vs. Jonson?
Janice, lol, I wondered who would be the first to notice that. Yep. They misspelled the poor guy's name on his gravestone. How's that for lame? Interestingly, he was also buried upright. No one is sure if that was a result of his poverty at the time of his death and so he couldn't afford a regular horizontal tomb, or if it was because he requested to be exactly 18 inches from the king and that was the only way they could accommodate his request. And, yes, I am a nerd of the highest order. I love useless trivia like this. ;)ReplyDelete
I heard about this from my MIL. So sad.ReplyDelete
I don't know anything about Ben Jonson, but that poem sure brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for sharing
Beautiful, Angie. Truly a fitting tribute for Dr. Hatch. I'm glad you were able to go to the funeral; I wish I could have gone, too. I have always attributed my love for Shakespeare to Dr. Hatch and am grateful to him for instilling that in me. I wish now I'd thought to let him know that years ago.ReplyDelete
And I loved your sonnet when I first read it, and I love it again now.
I l ove how close you can get to your professors. I had one that was deathly ill for awhile and current students and alumnus were all very concerned. He was the kind of guy that waited to retire so he could finish teaching just one last group of kids.ReplyDelete
Thoughts with you. :)
I'm sorry for your loss as well. Dr. Hatch sounds like the perfect professor and more importantly, a friend. As for the sonnet, you shouldn't degrade it at all! It's beautiful. :)ReplyDelete
And I love random trivia, too, haha!
Thank you for sharing. Your story reminded me of my dear deceased English professor who made a life-long anglophile of me with stories of Aphra Behn (whose lonely grave I sought out in Westminster Abbey) Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Virginia Woolf. She also exposed me to British wit in the theatre through "The Norman Conquests" and "Shirley Valentine." She filled my head and heart with English literature. So much so that I decided I had to experience it for myself.ReplyDelete
I left for London a week after college graduation like a pilgrim on a journey to mecca. It was one of the best times of my life too. I sought every little literary nook and cranny to the delight of my English major heart. I felt connected to the writers, the characters, and the settings. I was giddy while watching Shakespeare as a groundling at The Globe. I felt overwhelmed when I walked through Poet's Corner in the Abbey and practically skipped into the hallowed halls of The Bod at Oxford. It's an experience I love to recall. I went back a couple years ago and it was like Christmas morning all over again. Wondrous!
I owed it all to a woman whose passion was contagious and love of literature transporting. I understand your loss. His inspiration will live on in your memories and the many lives he touched.
Holly, it really is sad. And that poem...kills me.ReplyDelete
Allie, you're kind. :) And I wish you'd been able to come, too. Carrie and I were filled with good memories. The four of us did London well.
Raspberry, aww. Sounds like quite a professor. Thanks for sharing that.
Tiah, thank you.
Jenn, nice to know I'm not the only one!
Book Boor, what a marvelous account. Thank you so much for sharing it with me! I feel like I know exactly what it meant to you. Sounds like we have very similar experiences. And I know what you mean about Christmas morning. I went back later with my parents and once more with my husband and not a bit of the charm had worn off. I long to go back again someday.
This is a lovely post, Angie! I'm sure he was a great professor.ReplyDelete
I'm sorry for your loss too. He sounds like an amazing teacher and that was a lovely tribute to him.ReplyDelete
What a wonderful post and such wonderful memories you'll have to hold on to.ReplyDelete
Perfect. Just perfect.ReplyDelete
Thanks, guys. :)ReplyDelete