My now-defunct department at Boston University, the University Professors (UNI), was located on the top floor of the theology building. The theologians’ offices were a floor below us, and Professor Hill liked to joke that we were literally above God.
The first class on my first day of freshman year was a core focusing entirely on the literary variations of Coriolanus. So eager were we to delve into Shakespeare’s least-known tragedy, that my nerdy classmates and I showed up twenty minutes early. The professor had not arrived yet, so we sat cross-legged against the wall, waiting without speaking, sizing each other up.
At exactly ten o’clock, a bear of a man rounded the corner and headed for the classroom. He didn’t seem to notice us as we scattered before him, clearing his path to the door. He had holes in the elbows of his jacket and one pant leg was tucked into his sock. He wore hiking shoes.
The door was locked. He muttered “Damn,” turned around, and thundered back down the hall. We stared after him as he disappeared around the corner.
That was our introduction to Professor Geoffrey Hill.
When he returned with the classroom key, we were all standing at attention.
We followed him into the classroom and took our seats as he set his books on his desk. And then he walked to the back of the room and fiddled with the thermostat.
He hadn’t said a word yet. We began shooting each other worried glances, bonding over fear, when from the back of the room, he growled:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…
What was this? We caught each others eyes, and no one was laughing.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
He walked between the rows of desks with his hands clasped behind his back and rumbled:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
He stopped in the middle of the room and looked at us with raised eyebrows. We we looked back at him.
Finally, he asked, “Does anyone know who wrote those words?”
One eager student raised his hand and asked, “You?”
Professor Hill groaned and tipped his head into his hands.
“That was The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats,” he growled. “And it would serve you well to memorize it.”
I’ve never been very good at memorization, but as soon as I got back to my dorm room, I found the poem online, printed it out, and stuck it on my wall. I had no idea what it meant, but it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard in my life.
That was the year I discovered poetry. W.B. Yeats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Donne, Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan—and Geoffrey Hill. Geoffrey Hill, widely considered the greatest living poet in the English language. Geoffrey Hill, who considers accessibility an insult to art.
I took every poetry class BU offered. Persian poetry. Victorian poetry. Modern American poetry. Irish poetry. Religious poetry. Viking poetry. My parents were befuddled.
“Why have you suddenly decided you like poetry?” they asked.
“Because of Professor Hill,” I answered.
Until that day in Professor Hill’s class, my poetry experience had been sadly limited to Keats’s An Ode to a Grecian Urn, which I will admit I still hate.
But now, because of Professor Hill, poetry seemed mysterious and important and beautiful.
Professor Hill was the first person to pronounce my last name the way it should be pronounced in German. Until then, I had no idea I was pronouncing it wrong.
A “post-Holocaust” poet, he was fascinated by my Jewishness. I couldn’t bear to tell him that I failed Hebrew school.
When I told him I’d decided to study abroad in Ireland (to read Yeats in his homeland) he exclaimed in genuine concern, “But Ms. Ehrlich, there are no Temples in Ireland!”
When Katherine and I brought him cookies, his face lit up.
In a freshman lecture he used the phrase “the ineluctably demanding textures of time.”
Years later, I mustered the courage to ask him what he had meant by “the ineluctably demanding textures of time,” and he said, “Good God, did I say that? How pretentious of the old man.”
He would begin class by turning off the heat, even in the dead of winter. When every last one of us had donned our coats, he would grumble and turn the heat back on.
I asked him to be my senior thesis advisor. I felt sick every time I knocked on his door. And every time I left his office, I felt I had just experienced something Terribly Important.
I always meant to write him a letter, and I never did. He’s retired now, and he wouldn’t remember me (though I secretly hope he would). Someday I will write him that letter, even if its sappy, and thank him for coming into my life just at the right time, when I was impressionable and easily swayed by beautiful words.
Photo: The poet Geoffrey Hill, at home in Cambridge, 1984, with his then girlfriend, now wife, Alice Goodman and their cat Monica. He was about to publish his Collected Poems; she holds a draft of her libretto for John Adams’s opera, Nixon in China. The photograph in the picture frame on the wall is of Elvis Presley meeting Nixon. By Judith Aronson. Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.