In early June of 2018—nearly a year after a diagnosis of cancer and a much earlier than expected retirement from my teaching at the University of South Carolina—my family put together a wonderful party for me. Several university colleagues came, as well as numerous former students, ranging from the first year I taught (1980) until the last.
At the end of the program, my wife handed me the following poem, composed for the occasion by one of my oldest and dearest friends, Vincent Rossi. Vincent was unable to come to the party, but he had asked my wife (via email) to surprise me with the offering and ask me to read it aloud.
Nearly another year and a half has now passed, during which time I have continued to be absent from this blog. I have also continued to wonder each day as to why I’m still here, still suffering from an illness already deemed Stage IV and inoperable when it was first detected. I wonder, yes, but I also do my very best to give thanks and to enjoy each and every moment the good Lord graciously persists in giving me.
The retirement party itself—the full program of which is available for viewing on my YouTube channel—was certainly one of the most memorable of those moments, and the poem one of the most gratifying, entertaining, and humbling gifts I have ever received.
I recently came across these verses when sorting some files and decided at once that it must be exhumed and made public. Vincent hits so perfectly on what I attempted to do in the classroom, particularly as a Socratic interlocutor in my small honors seminars, that I wanted to share his words with the wider audience afforded by Anamnēsis.
I do so with sincerest thanks to my own teachers, to my students and friends, and to my wonderful family—and, of course, above all to God Himself, without the “paracletic flows” of whose “Spirit” my puny efforts would have been nothing worth!
How to (Be)come a Master Teacher
In honor of “Meister” James the Grammarian,
the “wisest and best of my unofficial teachers”
You must align your stars to meet a man
Who knows the art of “making by the law
In which we’re made.” So Cutsinger
Found Crossett, and Lewis his “Great Knock.”
Then, “struck by intellective lightning,” fan
That spark, inspired by Platonic awe,
Become a dialectic gunslinger
Enliv’ning minds with anamnetic shock.
With wisdom from “John of Carthage’s” clan
Educe the nous from passion’s mindless claw;
And, thus, Socratic gnostic light-bringer,
The soul’s remembered certainties unlock.
The master teacher by un-knowing knows
The truth of Spirit’s paracletic flows.
I realize this many-layered poem requires more than a little interpretive unraveling! It’s a deliberate take-off on another sonnet (“How to Be a Poet”) written for me while I was an undergraduate at Cornell College by the very best of my teachers, John Crossett. I once described the occasion here on this weblog.
Vincent was familiar with that post—including not just Crossett’s poem, but my description of how it all came about—and his own sonnet reflects that fact, beginning with the title itself and the word “(Be)Come”.
As for the dedication, “Meister” is an allusion to one of his and my favorite mystics, the German metaphysician, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328); “Grammarian” is no doubt meant to remind the reader of my Breviary of English Usage, not to mention my fondness for spilling red ink on my students’ papers (!); and “wisest and best of my unofficial teachers” points to C. S. Lewis’s dedication (in those very words) of his first scholarly book, The Allegory of Love, to his closest friend, Owen Barfield, author of the Foreword to my first scholarly book, The Form of Transformed Vision: Coleridge and the Knowledge of God.
In the first stanza, “making by the law in which we’re made” is meant to call to mind a passage in J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories”, in which Tolkien quotes part of a short poem he once wrote for Lewis, a poem intended to recapitulate a lengthy dialogue between these two Oxford Inklings which turned out to be a key to Lewis’s return to Christianity:
‘Dear Sir,’ I said—‘Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
With Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
And sowed the seed of dragons –’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
We make still by the law in which we’re made.
As for “the Great Knock”, that was Lewis’s fanciful name for his own greatest teacher, W. T. Kirkpatrick, whose impact on CSL is described at some length in Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.
In the second stanza, the words in quotation marks in the first line are taken from my weblog entry on Crossett’s poem, words I myself was quoting from a letter I received years ago from an Oxford pupil of Lewis’s, Martin Lings. Lings—an eloquent interpreter of the initiatic and mystical dimensions of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, one of the leading perennialist lights, and another man of deep wisdom I was blessed to call a friend—told me that a lecture by CSL on the four forms of knowing expounded by the philosopher Boethius (480-524 A.D.; known in the Church as St Severinus and commemorated, along with my patron, James, Brother of the Lord, on October 23rd) in The Consolation of Philosophy had left him (Lings) feeling as though he’d been “struck by intellective lightning”. The adjective “anamnetic” in the fourth line of that stanza is derived from the Greek anamnēsis, meaning “remembrance” or “recollection”. Anamnēsis, of course, is the name of this blog, but—much more importantly!—it was the term Plato used for the goal of all true education: to uncover forgotten truths already existing deep within the soul.
In the third stanza, “John of Carthage” was the playful pseudonym some of my students and I would employ back in the 80’s and 90’s when quoting from or speaking about Frithjof Schuon in mixed company, that is, among people, often fellow Christians, who we knew might be scandalized by our interest in perennialist ideas, but who would be loath to admit they hadn’t heard of this particular (non-existent) saint! Nous in line two is the Greek word for “Intellect”, the highest of the soul’s cognitive facilities, the term favored by the authors included in the most important of Orthodox spiritual anthologies, The Philokalia, when naming our capacity for a direct, transformative vision of God.
In the concluding couplet, the paradoxical “by un-knowing knows” could be in reference to any number of spiritual sources, both East and West, including the Tao Teh Ching. What it calls to mind in the first place for me is a koanic observation attributed to St Maximos the Confessor: “God is supra-non-knowable and can be known only by an act of supra-non-knowing.” Vincent is, among other things, a superb Maximos scholar, so this or some similar formulation may well have been on his own mind as well. Finally, the adjective “paracletic” comes from the Greek paraklētos, usually translated as “comforter”, “counselor”, or “advocate”. It’s the term Christ uses in the Gospel of John for the Holy Spirit (as in John 14:26).
Readers of other posts on this weblog or of my books and articles, or those who may have consulted the syllabi I have included on my website under Teaching, or—another possibility—those of you who may have watched and listened to this explanation of my Socratic teaching style, will readily see, I trust, that “How to Be(Come) a Master Teacher” is in a way a key to my entire career, bringing together in the space of 14 short lines virtually all the people and ideas that have most deeply informed my thinking, teaching, and writing. Each reading of this remarkable, magical poem is for me yet another occasion for gratitude and joy.