Thursday, February 22, 2018
In the early 1990s, I was fortunate to be a student of the great Catholic scholar, Wallace Fowlie. Professor Fowlie's particular area of expertise was French symbolist poetry, in particular Rimbaud and Mallarmé (he has an important set of translations of the former). But he was also deeply interested in the work of the symbolist-influenced Catholic poet, Paul Claudel and the (complicated) philosopher, Henri Bergson.
I took various classes on Dante and Proust with Professor Fowlie. I also remember visiting with him on several occasions in his home (at that time, in a quiet retirement community; he was already quite advanced in age) and chatting with him about his extraordinary life. On one memorable occasion, in 1995, just before I graduated, I recall driving him to a wonderful and simple Easter service.
I thought about Professor Fowlie, who passed away in 1998, twenty years ago, in reading a little pamphlet of his published in 1994 titled, "Dante Today: A Personal Essay." Here is a passage of it for Lent, concerning an encounter in his youth with T.S. Eliot:
The year was 1932-33, when Eliot came to Harvard to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures. These were public lectures in the evening. They were published in book form in 1931: The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. In addition to these public lectures, Eliot gave a course on "English literature from 1830 to 1930," to fifteen students. Fourteen of these students were English majors. I was the fifteenth, just barely admitted since I was a French-Italian major.
I had two good friends in that class which was held on the second floor of Sever Hall. Before Eliot arrived in Cambridge, we had worked hard on "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915) and on "The Wasteland" (1922). When I first read "Ash Wednesday" in 1930, it seemed to me a religious poem, a poem of peacefulness finally reached after the earlier poems of man's human dilemmas. We were proud to have Eliot there and hear him speak to us each week. We became almost childishly curious about him, about his life, and we developed the outrageous habit of following him in the street to see where he walked, where he ate, what he ate. If he went into the Coop, what did he buy? He had announced his allegiance to the Anglo-Catholic branch of the Episcopal Church, and we suspected that he attended Sunday services in the Church of St. John the Evangelist, on the back of Beacon Hill in Boston. That turned out to be true.
When Christmas Eve came, the three of us decided to attend midnight Mass at St. John's where the singing was Gregorian chant, directed by a skilled organist, Mr. Titcomb. We hoped, of course, that Eliot would be there. He was there in the first row, seated beside his colleague-friend Theodore Spencer. We took our places in the sixth row behind them. It is a small church, and that evening it was filled. It was snowing outside. The ladies wore fur coats. The liturgy was performed slowly and reverently, and the Mass was beautifully sung by the Cowley Fathers, an Anglican monastic order.
At the end of the service, the congregation stood and filled immediately into the one aisle that led to the entrance. The three of us decided to wait in our row until Eliot and Spencer passed us. Then we took our places somewhat behind them. Between us and Eliot, we noticed in the very slow moving crowd, a tall fellow we had seen in the Harvard yard. He was a graduate student. The church was quiet and we filed out. Suddenly, this student, whom we did not know, opened his mouth and recited in a strong voice a line in Italian, which he obviously directed at Eliot. We could see Eliot cringe and try to move faster in order to get out of the church. When we finally got outside, Eliot and his friend had disappeared into the falling snow, and the graduate student also had disappeared.
When I returned to college after the Christmas holiday, I ran into the student one day in the yard. I spoke to him then. "Excuse me. After midnight Mass on Christmas eve, I heard you recite a line of Italian. You seemed to direct it to Mr. Eliot. May I ask you what that line was? Possibly Dante?" He looked at me in a somewhat scornful way, and asked: "Haven't you read Guido Cavalcanti?"
"No, I haven't read Cavalcanti."
"Well, let me recite it to you and translate it. Perch'io non spero di tornar giammai. 'Because I do not hope to turn again.' Do you recognize the translation?"
This time I was able to answer in the affirmative. And I said, "Yes, it's the first line in Eliot's Ash Wednesday." "But," I continued, "Why did you do that in the quiet of that church? It disturbed Eliot."
"I wanted to tell that Old Possum that I knew he had stolen his first line from the first line of a Cavalcanti poem."
Abruptly he left me then. And I, both shocked and somewhat amused, made my way to Widener.