The jacket Buddy Rich admired wasn’t my first madras garment. Madras shorts and shirts came into my life in the early 1960s. In the spring of 1964, my last year in college at Columbia, I had a pair of Bermuda shorts that I remember as looking something like these, again probably mostly green. I wore them one day to my seminar in 17th century poetry with Edward W. Tayler, whom I mentioned in an earlier post, and who was one of the two college teachers who had the greatest influence on me.
The seminar was on Friday afternoon, which felt to me like Tayler’s rebuke to me for having arranged my final semester schedule so that I had classes, except for his, on only Tuesday and Thursday. I wore the shorts on a warm day in late April and Tayler opened the class by saying in his distinctive urbane drawl, “Nice of Mr. Oster to stop by on his way to the Hamptons.”
Tayler was literally my first college professor. Fall classes at Columbia began the last Thursday in September and Tayler’s section of Humanities I, now known as Literature Humanities, a class required then and now of all first-year students, met at 9 a.m. on what I calculate was September 29 1960, in Philosophy Hall. I thought all adults were the same age and had had the same experiences, and it never occurred to me that the class was also Tayler’s first. I also thought everyone who stood in front of a classroom was perforce a professor, and never suspected that Tayler had only that year received his Ph.D., from Stanford University, and probably had the rank of assistant professor, perhaps even of lecturer.
Tayler was a handsome, compact man—I would never call him short—with dense blond hair and a deep, mellifluous voice. He had gone to Amherst College, where he’d apparently been a wrestler, though he mocked his athletic career by quoting his coach’s greeting him at a practice session with: “Thanks for showing up, Tayler. Try not to get nicotine stains on the mat,” an anecdote he never tired of telling: I found it in this 2004 Columbia alumni magazine profile, 44 years after I first heard it. The longer I knew Tayler—I took classes with him for four years—the more I came to think of him as resembling Homer’s Odysseus, often described by the epithet “wily.” (Thanks to Google, not to my memory or my scholarship, I learned that Odysseus fought two wrestling matches in Homer’s works, once with Ajax [Il: 23.700-39], once with Philomeleides [Od. 4.342-4].)
Tayler encouraged us to read old literature as it had been written, not from a modern perspective. This was hard for me, for I, like I’m sure many young men, identified with whatever literary character in whatever book I was reading. “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but I’m sure he thought he was, and for good reason. Tayler rapped my freshman knuckles with a B– on an early paper. I don’t remember what it was about and I’ve forgotten his comments, but I’m sure they were along the lines of: “Pay attention.”
Tayler confused me too, by quoting admiringly from what he called “motorcycle poetry” by Thom Gunn, of whom I’d never heard, and by comparing an imaginary character he called Brad Truesdale, who had “broad shoulders and slim greyhound hips,” to Homer’s Achilles (whose name Tayler pronounced ACK-ill-iss). He read us Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar,” the most powerful poem I think I’ve ever read, and offered it as a way to understanding the thousand-year-old text we were reading. I had no idea what he was up do, but I believed he was on to something, and determined to follow, besotted and bewildered.
The payoff, it that’s the word, came in that senior year seminar. We were reading Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” (by all means skip to the end, but here’s the whole thing, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation):
How vainly men themselves amazeTo win the palm, the oak, or bays,And their uncessant labours seeCrown’d from some single herb or tree,Whose short and narrow verged shadeDoes prudently their toils upbraid;While all flow’rs and all trees do closeTo weave the garlands of repose.Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,And Innocence, thy sister dear!Mistaken long, I sought you thenIn busy companies of men;Your sacred plants, if here below,Only among the plants will grow.Society is all but rude,To this delicious solitude.No white nor red was ever seenSo am’rous as this lovely green.Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,Cut in these trees their mistress’ name;Little, alas, they know or heedHow far these beauties hers exceed!Fair trees! wheres’e’er your barks I wound,No name shall but your own be found.When we have run our passion’s heat,Love hither makes his best retreat.The gods, that mortal beauty chase,Still in a tree did end their race:Apollo hunted Daphne so,Only that she might laurel grow;And Pan did after Syrinx speed,Not as a nymph, but for a reed.What wond’rous life in this I lead!Ripe apples drop about my head;The luscious clusters of the vineUpon my mouth do crush their wine;The nectarine and curious peachInto my hands themselves do reach;Stumbling on melons as I pass,Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,Withdraws into its happiness;The mind, that ocean where each kindDoes straight its own resemblance find,Yet it creates, transcending these,Far other worlds, and other seas;Annihilating all that’s madeTo a green thought in a green shade.Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,Casting the body’s vest aside,My soul into the boughs does glide;There like a bird it sits and sings,Then whets, and combs its silver wings;And, till prepar’d for longer flight,Waves in its plumes the various light.Such was that happy garden-state,While man there walk’d without a mate;After a place so pure and sweet,What other help could yet be meet!But ’twas beyond a mortal’s shareTo wander solitary there:Two paradises ’twere in oneTo live in paradise alone.How well the skillful gard’ner drewOf flow’rs and herbs this dial new,Where from above the milder sunDoes through a fragrant zodiac run;And as it works, th’ industrious beeComputes its time as well as we.How could such sweet and wholesome hoursBe reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!
I’m embarrassed that I now and then tell people that I “studied” Marvell, for about all I can say about him with any authority is that he lived in the 17th century (1621-1678). I could never have pretended to know that “The Garden” was, in the words of the Poetry Foundation essay, “…regarded as an account of mystical ecstasy by some commentators, of Horatian Epicureanism by others,” or that “some find in it an antilibertine version of the poetry of rural retirement, while others interpret it in terms of ‘the politics of landscape’…”
But I remember the moment when Tayler asked, in regard to the penultimate stanza (“Such was that happy garden-state,/While man there walk’d without a mate”), “What did Milton have to say about this?” and I blurted, with no prethought whatsoever, “‘A paradise within thee, happier far,” the Archangel Michael’s promise to Adam and Eve on their expulsion from Eden that all would essentially be okay. Tayler didn’t make a fuss about it, just probably nodded a single approving nod, and moved the discussion on.
Another time, probably in regard to the same poem, Tayler wanted to know: “What does Isaiah say?” and Jonathan Cott, whom I usually claim to have known but really shouldn’t, answered: “‘All flesh is grass.'” (Isaiah 40:6, “The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field,” King James translation of the Old Testament). Another nod from Tayler, and on we went.
My point is that Tayler brought out from us things he suspected we knew, but that we were not at all sure were in us. Or at least I wasn’t.
In 1996, David Denby wrote a book about his experience taking—or rather retaking—Tayler’s Humanities course nearly 30 years after graduating from Columbia. I hadn’t known Denby in college, but I’d gotten to know him in the early 1970s, when were were movie critics, he for Newsweek, me for the Daily News. I must have kicked myself for not having thought to write such a book, and I wrote Denby a letter, c/o The New Yorker, which had published an excerpt of his book. My letter coincided with The New Yorker’s decision to publish letters from readers, and was printed in the Oct 11, 1993, issue, along with a letter from Erica Jong lamenting the demise of Great Books courses like Humanities.
Tayler went on to teach courses on Shakespeare and Milton and to named the Lionel Trilling Professor, which from my perspective is what James Joyce might have called a commodius vicus of recirculation. In another post sometime soon, I’ll tell you of his encounter with my daughter Lily.