His Words Still Shape My Own
The intonation of his voice - a deliberating, mellifluous murmuration - was an irresistible gift to schoolboy mimics. Hardly the first schoolmaster in history (or in our school) to invite such adulation, Mr. Taylor was unusual in his disarming habit of mimicking us mimicking him. Finally it became impossible to tell who had started the game. Were we teasing him, or he us?
Teacher of sixth-form English literature and director of school plays, The Taylor (did we really call him this behind his back, or am I inventing?) knew, of course, that imitation is high flattery and also one of the best ways of remembering things. So he would come into his classroom intoning in a long purr of feline syllables (punctuating it with a wiggle of his index finger) some quotation he particularly wanted us never to forget.
We didn't. To this day I quote snatches and tatters of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Pope, Milton, Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Eliot, and others that The Taylor bequeathed to us in imitable utterance.
The bequest was sometimes rather more than a snatch or two. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was a Taylor favorite, and I can't be alone among the latter-day survivors of that class in still (now and then) measuring "out my life in coffee spoons" or in murmuring sotto voce, "I grow old... I grow old.../ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled" or in observing, when the mood strikes, that "In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo." Much longer stretches of the poem remain with me, too.
If anyone overhears me, though, they may well wonder why such memorable words emerge in a voice quite unlike my own, the vowels elasticated Mr. Taylor-fashion: "Ta-a-a-l- k iiiiinggggg o-o-o-f Miiiiii chel a-a-a-a-a-ng ell ohhhh." To non-cognoscenti, I admit, it must seem novel. But would they rather I imitated Eliot's own dried-up rendering of his poetry?
If Mr. Taylor (I have no idea what his first name was) conveyed one thing above all to us - even if it was by means of humorous eccentricity - it was an appreciation for the fascinating sound of words. A sound not just as an adjunct to meaning, but essentially suffused into meaning. "With beaded bubbles winking at the brim" (Keats) or "Busy old fool, unruly sun" (Donne) are indelibly Taylor-voiced for me. In my year he taught us no Tennyson. I'm not sure he even liked that Victorian eminence. But why do I vividly remember -
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me
- with such musical insistence?
Mr. Taylor was a musician, as well. This was an Anglican school, and he played the organ, high up in the chapel loft, like a soul in glory or at least, since I am not musical enough to judge, with a thundering, trumpeting, raging, roaring energy and demonstrativeness that seemed made for that instrument and its vastly remote setting.
In some ways, The Taylor's organist "hat" was in contrast to the others he wore. In play rehearsals, or in his class, he never had discipline problems, but this was achieved by character, warm-hearted irony, and that almost inexplicable quality only really good teachers have of putting over their subject as a thing both utterly indispensible and quite casually enjoyable.
On the rarest occasions did I see him worked up to give us a good telling off, and it was an impressively unconvincing performance.
He might make an organ rage, or show how to act fury, or rouse us to grasp Lear's impotent, anguished "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout...." and so on, but he was himself far too tolerant of human nature, amused by its silly foibles, and much too disengaged from such absurdities as boys behaving badly to be genuinely angry himself.
If I had seriously wanted to be a schoolteacher, my preferred model would have been The Taylor. But then that would have required some kind of genius.