Tuesday, February 04, 2014

"Sorry, H.T.L."

A lovely set of reminiscences of the late John Hollander by a set of distinguished Spenserians. (Courtesy of Jenn Lewin, whose piece is especially good.) Taken together, they really convey what it was like to spend time with John; here is Stephen Orgel for instance on a summer spent working with John on an index for his father-in-law's book:
Anne’s father, Arthur Loesser, a musicologist and a superb pianist, had written a history of the piano, and we spent two months preparing a copious index. We would work all day in an attic study, reading proofs and making index cards, which included entries for an increasing number of fictitious composers and parodic keyboard instruments invented by John—Arthur eventually complained that we were using too many index cards, but on the whole he was a singularly indulgent employer and host, and much of our work was conducted in a condition of high hilarity. We would descend at the end of the day, and Arthur would ask for the most arcane or absurd items we had indexed, and would then play them for us, astoundingly, from memory. I still recall his spirited rendition of Kotswara’s Battle of Prague, for which he provided a moving commentary (“Cries of the wounded and dying”; “Field Marshall Maximilian orders a retreat”). The prodigy Leopoldine Blahetka, who was pronounced an excellent pianist when she played for Beethoven at the age of 5 (by which time, John immediately pointed out, Beethoven was totally deaf) remained a figure in our personal mythology for years afterward.
And this is Kenneth Gross, capturing better than anything else I have seen the texture of John's teaching:
Innumerable moments from his intense and rambling seminars still stick in my mind. I remember how he improvised a self-descriptive pastiche of a song-setting by Handel, sung in gravelly tenor, in order to demonstrate how music and text might mutually sustain and gloss each other in this composer’s work (a performed version of the kinds of poetic examples which compose his Rhyme’s Reason). I remember how, when we were reading Book V of The Faerie Queene, he said of the Egalitarian Giant: that giant is John Rawls, and one of the troubling things about American intellectual life these days is that John Rawls hasn’t read Spenser, and that most Spenser scholars have not read John Rawls. I remember how he traced the journey made by the phrase “wat’ry flower” as it passed from lines describing the dying Narcissus in the Gardens of Adonis to Robert Frost’s “Spring Pools”—the account reminded you not just of Frost’s powers of echo and revision but of just how strange the original phrase itself is.

I remember his response to a comment of mine in a Milton seminar, when I said that perhaps, after all, Samson Agonistes couldn’t be staged, for how could you imagine someone coming on stage in a shaggy wig, and suddenly discovering that his hair is troped—John looked at me somewhat disapprovingly, and said: “That’s why there are actors.” I remember a wonderful excursion on the history of aspirin (the first truly synthetic drug, whose name spoke of hope), which glossed the figure of the “Canon Aspirin” in Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” I remember how, dwelling on a line from Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain”—“And the rotten rose is ript from the wall”—he conveyed a kind breathless delight in the look and substance of an actual rotted rose.

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