To Sir, with Love: How Do You Thank a
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.