He was a professor of English literature, with a specialty in 19th-century poetry, a wild-haired man with sparkling eyes, and when he poured shots of slivovitz for the class to enhance our reading of Bram Stoker's Dracula, I thought he had to be the most extraordinary teacher on the planet.
An English literature professor ignited her love affair with poetry and the written word. Years later, when she saw him again—now a shadow of his former self—Laraine Perri knew just how to thank him.
He thrilled me with his readings of the Romantics—Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats—and, later that year, the Victorians. The curriculum consumed him, but it wouldn't contain him; he'd leap forward to quote a passage from the 1920s horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft or backtrack three centuries to the holy sonnets of John Donne, shouting, "Batter my heart, three person'd God!" and pounding his fist on his desk, less for effect, I think, than because he couldn't help it.
He reveled in the wordplay of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the imagery of Tennyson. He dubbed Tennyson "the Bob Dylan of the Victorian era." Dylan was all right in my book, but it was my teacher who was the real rock star.
Poetry was his passion, poets his fascination. He spoke rapturously of their demons, desires, and afflictions: alcoholism, incest, a clubfoot, madness. And he told stories of their deaths, tragic and early, from what amounted to a catalog of maladies in the 19th century: tuberculosis, syphilis, typhoid, rheumatic fever. I would listen so hard I'd forget to swallow, stumbling out of his classroom nearly feverish myself.
Elsewhere on campus, students packed into vast halls for lectures in political science, physics, and economics. I thought them fools as I raced to join the tiny class of 14 enrolled in English 40.3. God, beauty, nature, aging, suffering hearts, spiritual despair…I was 19, and I was in my glory.
It was his powerful reading of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" that would get me through a harrowing MRI years later, as I silently recited words I hadn't known I could recall. His enthrallment with Yeats was the reason I traveled to Ireland. I am inexpressibly close to my Irish mother, but it was Yeats, not roots, that prompted me to take her there. Arriving in Dublin, we passed up the Book of Kells in favor of a first stop at 82 Merrion Square, simply to stand outside the poet's house.
My professor's ardor for Yeats was bettered only by his love of Yeats in love. An unrequited longing captured in the hand of a poet is powerful stuff; I was a goner, and I found myself swimming in the letters to and from Maud Gonne. I worked part-time at a Barnes and Noble bookstore, and I struck gold one night when I came across a rare volume of those letters on a "books for a buck" table, my employee discount netting me a 60-cent treasure.
But when college ended, my connection to the teacher I'd adored did too. Strangely, I never imagined it could be any other way. So it was a true shock to me that we came to be within inches of each other, 24 years later, in a small stationery store near my apartment in New York.
He was in a wheelchair, pushed by an aide; still wild-haired, but hollow-eyed now. He was buying pencils. Our eyes met, and I believe that something registered for him, however vaguely and silently.
I approached him and blurted out everything I wished I'd expressed sooner. I felt ashamed that I'd never attempted to contact him. He was unable to speak, and I'll never know what, if anything, he understood.
Desperate to offer something, I told him I would send him some music. I had ultimately opted out of a career as a poet and had built one in the music business instead. I'd just produced a beautiful recording with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and I thought the soulful music might soothe him. Maybe I even thought it would heal him. I asked the aide for his address; it turned out that his apartment was two blocks from my own. I promised to send him a package and told him how much it meant to see him again. I made my purchase and began to walk away.
Then I turned back, knelt beside his wheelchair, and whispered words I had learned and loved because of him: "That is no country for old men. The young / In one another's arms, birds in the trees… / Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect."
Were his eyes now wilder with comprehension, or were they the same? Those words might have meant everything, or they might have meant nothing. It was impossible to know.
I walked home sobbing as hard as I can ever recall. I mailed him the Yo-Yo Ma CD the next day. I never heard from him or saw him again. I learned of his death a few months later.
I don't know what killed him. It seems unlikely that it was tuberculosis or syphilis or typhoid, however much he'd earned a 19th-century poet's goodbye.
Laraine Perri is a writer and Grammy award-winning record producer who lives in New York City. This is her first essay for O.
Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, March 11, 2014
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