Diamond of a lesson
''Anglo-Saxon poetry has a rhythm of its own,'' Dr. Bibere asserted. His voice rose in an orotund cadence, then halted abruptly. ''Excuse me,'' he said vaguely, gazing up at the tall, latticed windows of the Scots lecture hall. What he was thinking was anybody's guess.
A moment before, he had been talking about Anglo-Saxon culture and poetry. As he spoke, images of fearless pagan warriors leapt to mind. These warriors, he told us, believed that their god would glorify them in battle. Their poetry reflected this heroic ideal. Like the warriors, Anglo-Saxon poetry was rough-hewn. It was hard and rich and heavy, like hammered bronze or beaten gold.
The lecture hall was cold. The student beside me blew on his knuckles and looked down at his wristwatch. It was only four in the afternoon, but already the windows had crimsoned with twilight. My classmates - some wearing scholars' robes, some dressed in kilts - shifted uneasily behind the tiers of wooden trestles. A wan light glowed dully on the varnished lectern.
Shaking his head, Dr. Bibere turned away from the windows.
''One shouldn't try to think and talk at the same time,'' he explained. ''It's not to be advised.''
The students, chagrined but indulgent, took this brief lapse in stride. Had it not happened often before? Sheer brilliance, not forgetfulness, had caused him to pause. In a moment, his mind would be racing ahead like a large pack of hounds on the scent of a fox. I turned over my notebook and picked up my pen.
''As I was saying,'' he began.
Tall and gangly, he looked like a medieval choirboy. His face was a picture: pale, sunken cheeks separated by a long, reddened nose and flanked by a pair of thick ears. His dark hair looked inky against the white of his skin; it fell like a pony's forelock across his left eye. As he lectured, he paced up and down , hands clutching the collarless yoke of his black gown.
He was eccentric. He was outrageous. I loved him.
The lecture adjourned and, as I strolled out to the broad, dusky quadrangle, I looked around me and pondered. What made this man so different from his American colleagues? Truly, I was puzzled. Looking up, I saw the scrolled battlements of the lecture halls. To my left lay the gray, fluted pillars that formed the cloisters of the university chapel. Nearby, the North Sea beat rhythmically against the walls of the archbishop's castle, where the curlews were wheeling in the red sky.
Was it the setting? Had this medieval Scots community invested Dr. Bibere with an aura of deep scholastic attainment? Perhaps, I thought, perhaps.
The aura certainly had nothing to do with the man's manner. He had none of the detached professionalism that I had come to expect of great literary minds. And this, I admit, disconcerted me.
For Dr. Bibere was more apt to applaud than he was to find fault. He delighted in extolling the perfections of a poet, but shied away from discussing the same poet's flaws. When, on occasion, a glaring poetic faux pas forced him to criticize a poem, his comments sounded vaguely like apologies. He would always cite explanations, exceptions, disclaimers. He could, in short, be objective, but never disinterested, for he and his poets were one.
At times, his academic backwardness embarrassed me. There were moments when even his phrasing reminded me of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the famous eighteenth-century author. And while I, in theory, loved Johnson's style and ''sensibility,'' I loved them in the way that one loves anything old and quaint - like high-buttoned shoes and gas streetlamps.
A poem, to me, was a closed system of ideas and images. From this definition, I reasoned that criticism consisted of systematic, scientific analysis. In our century, I thought smugly, we had gone well beyond a criticism of mere value judgments. For me, Dr. Johnson held little charm when compared with our computer-aided analyses of style.
But as I, day by day, listened to Dr. Bibere's surprisingly warm and gentle voice - as I watched him browsing in the town's bookshops or thumbing through volumes in the university library stacks - I became increasingly unsure of my analytic pretensions. Dr. Bibere's steady affection for the literature he taught - the same literature that I so neatly, so clinically dissected - humbled me.
Perhaps, I thought, there was something to be said for the old school of thought after all. Perhaps literary taste was more than disinterested respect for the formal aspects of composition.
Gradually, I found myself seeking this man out. Then, one dark winter day, I cornered him in the dimly lit cellar where hot drinks were served in the old student union. I must have babbled at him for an hour or so. The door to the cellar repeatedly opened and banged shut. Shoes clattered on the stone steps. Nearby, at a table, two students pontificated about Ibsen's plays. Yet Dr. Bibere, in spite of the din, never made any motion to leave, never cast a meaningful glance at his watch. Instead, he listened closely, as though my chatter truly interested him. Now and then, he interjected a passing ''Really?'' or, again, ''You don't say!''
''So many people,'' I was saying, ''use the phrase 'free verse' as an excuse for sloppy writing. They forget what T. S. Eliot says. . . .''
'' 'No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job'? Yes, quite. But then there is the other extreme.''
To my surprise, he proceeded to quote a modern lyric.
''That poem,'' he said later, ''is technically brilliant. Everything about it is right. The metaphor is apt, and the syntax compelling.''
He paused and gave me a measured look. ''But I, for one, do not like it.''
Instantly, I knew what he meant. In spite of its excellence, the poem had no substance. It was void of both humanity and nobility.
''I should rather,'' Dr. Bibere was saying, ''have a flawed diamond than a perfect lump of coal.''
At the end of the term, as I packed for my trip back to the States, I was left with a sense of reverence, even awe. A poem, I had learned, was something meant to be studied, yes. But it was never meant to be trussed up and coolly anatomized.
Dr. Bibere, after all, held the secret. He knew what to do with a poem. A poem had to have depth, nobility, and substance, because a poem was meant to be lived.m